Yesterday screens around the world flickered with the impossible images of a huge gossamer balloon as it floated into the nothing of the stratosphere. Beneath it clung the tiny dot of a capsule.
Austrian Felix Baumgartner – aged 43 – jumped from this capsule 128,000 feet (24 miles) above the Earth for scientific knowledge, to set a new record for the highest skydive and to be the first human to travel, unaided by a jet engine, faster than the speed of sound. He succeeded.
He was helped by a team of American scientists along with retired US Air Force colonel Joe Kittinger who held the previous record for the highest skydive (over 100,000 feet).
The balloon set off quietly, wafting like a weary ghost up and up. On Earth millions watched and tried to understand how this man of flesh, family and plans could even think of such a journey.
Commentary spaced details around the ascent. There were statistics and then feet, thousands of feet, tens of thousands of feet and finally a hundred thousand feet all stretching minds into new atmospheres.
Checks were carried out. The “egress” rehearsed. The deep, calm voice of Kittinger rolled into space. This was the voice that Baumgartner wished to hear in the capsule. This was the voice that understood how to overcome a body’s natural instincts to remain safe. The urgent need was to hold nerve and trust the team.
Minutes to the jump ticked away and Baumgartner’s breathing became shorter, the rasps deeper. Focus on the instructions. Open the valve.
The pale orb, tight with helium, slipped higher and higher. It looked briefly possible that the capsule and skydiver would disappear into the forever and far away like Curious George. 125,000 feet, 126,000, 127,000 – open the valve. The voice – calm and steady.
Below tension bounced off fright. 84-year-old Kittinger repeated and requested. Baumgartner’s breathing did not steady. Silence where there might have been response.
Still the rich voice talked life to the lonely skydiver. It talked with the slow military tone that convinces and persuades that there is no chance of failure. It talked deep into the suspended minds of Baumgartner and those who watched. Each word said stay with us young man. One step at time.
Open the doors. Roll the seat forward. There, thousands of heartbeats above, two suited legs appeared, balanced on a tiny ledge in space. Kittinger again reminded, commanded, reassured. Baumgartner rose to his feet. His helmeted figure filled the capsule opening.
The final command: “Start the cameras and our guardian angel will take care of you.”
Baumgartner saluted then dropped like a toy towards Earth. First he was a white dot that bulleted into the black, then he tumbled and span, regained control and finally slowed to safety beneath a white canopy.
In the first four minutes of the skydive Baumgartner had gone supersonic and reached a speed of up to 833 miles per hour. Some five minutes later he had returned from the edge of space to float into sunlight, land gently and then fold briefly to his grateful knees.
It doesn’t sound like he’s keen to do it again.
Neither was Garnerin in 1802.