One Giant Leap for Mankind

Michael O’ Sullivan examines Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking skydive and what it means for us as human beings

On October 14th, a biological life form fell from space and landed in eastern New Mexico in the USA. Ironically enough, this life form originated in Roswell, the alleged landing site of aliens in the 1950s. Although in this instance, the life form was not some sort of green creature with elongated limbs and eyes atop stalks. No, the life form was a human, a 43-year-old Austrian by the name of Felix Baumgartner. He ascended to the edge of space through the aid of a giant helium filled balloon and then simply jumped out, with eight million people watching a live stream of the event on YouTube.

With his top speed clocking in at 834 miles per hour, Baumgartner broke the sound barrier, achieved Mach 1.24 and shattered the previous freefall speed record by more than 200 miles per hour. He also broke the record for the highest manned balloon flight and the record for the highest altitude parachute jump.

The parachute jump and freefall speed records were previously held by his adviser and capsule communicator Joseph Kittinger. When setting his record in 1960, Kittinger’s pressure suit failed, causing one of his hands to expand to twice its normal size due to the reduced pressure of the earth’s atmosphere. In a previous attempt, he had also gone into a flat spin, lost consciousness and was saved only by his automatic parachute opener. Oddly enough he set a record on that occasion, due to the fact that the g-forces acting on his extremities as a result of the spin were 22 times the force of gravity.

Baumgartner had to breathe a special air mix before his ascent so as to be sure he wouldn’t have any nitrogen bubbles in his system, which would expand and cause the illness common to scuba divers known as the bends. With such risks involved, one has to admire the sheer tenacity of Baumgartner, who jumped from a height 17 kilometres above Kittinger’s highest attempt.

On top of the obvious risks to his personal safety, Baumgartner battled through psychological difficulties before achieving his death defying feat. The pressurised suit he was required to wear brought on a severe bout of claustrophobia which he had to work through with a sports psychologist and other specialists before he could even attempt any test jumps.

The jump itself had been initially scheduled for October 9th, but due to adverse weather conditions had to be postponed. The images provided by the cameras attached to Baumgartner’s suit illustrated to eight million live onlookers just how high he was. The curve of the earth and the infinite blackness of space caught on camera, and a man sitting between both of them.

Just before he jumped, Baumgartner addressed the millions of people watching live on their computers, echoing Neil Armstrong: “I know the whole world is watching now. I wish you could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to be up really high to understand how small you are… I’m coming home now.”

Less than ten minutes later, he was jumping up and down on the earth’s surface.

Red Bull’s sponsorship of the dive has led some people to believe that the entire thing was merely a dangerous and reckless publicity stunt. However, Red Bull have a very distinctive reputation for sponsoring extreme sports events and death-defying record attempts, and had worked with Baumgartner previously when he skydived across the English channel using a specially made carbon fibre wing. While that particular jump shows all the hallmarks of sheer bravado, the Stratos jump provided scientists with very detailed information about the effects of re-entering earth’s atmosphere from such heights minus the aid of transportation, information that will be put to good use by space programs across the globe.

The fact that technology has advanced to such a degree to allow a man to break the sound barrier is just another landmark among the ridiculous number of technological landmarks that have been achieved with increasing regularity over the past number of years. Since the year 2000, we have gone from carrying mobile phones with monophonic ringtones and VGA cameras, to what are basically handheld computers capable of almost as much as your average PC.

So where do we go from here? We have a robot on Mars, man has walked on the moon, we have portable devices that are completely touch screen and capable of producing 3D images, we are seeing the beginnings of bionic prosthetic limbs; man has moved on a great deal since Kittinger did his skydive in the 1960s. Can anyone imagine how much further we will go in the next 40 years? If Felix Baumgartner has proved anything, it’s that the future of the human race is both bright and damn well exciting.

 

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