That was 1802 – a decade over two centuries later the following happens: a huge gossamer balloon floats into the nothing of the stratosphere. Beneath it clings the tiny dot of a capsule, and inside it is an Austrian, Felix Baumgartner, aged 43.
When the balloon reaches 128,000 feet (24 miles) above the Earth, he will step out and drop into the deep.
The balloon sets off quietly, wafting like a weary ghost up and up. On Earth millions watch and try to understand how this man of flesh, family and plans can even think of such a journey.
News broadcasts report that the aeronaut is helped by a team of American scientists along with retired US Air Force colonel Joe Kittinger, who holds the previous record for the highest skydive (over 100,000 feet).
The commentary spaces details around the ascent. There are statistics and then feet, thousands of feet, tens of thousands of feet, a hundred thousand feet…and the ascent continues.
Checks are carried out. The “egress” rehearsed. The deep, calm voice of Kittinger rolls into space. This, we learn, is the voice that Baumgartner wishes to hear in the capsule. This is the voice that understands how to overcome a body’s natural instincts to remain safe.
The urgent need, with every inch of darkness, is to hold the nerve and trust the team.
Minutes to the jump tick away. Baumgartner’s breathing, broadcast around the world, becomes shorter, the rasps deeper. He must focus on the instructions – open the valve.
The pale orb, tight with helium, slips higher and higher. Briefly it looks possible that the capsule and skydiver might disappear into the forever and far away like Curious George. 125,000 feet, 126,000, 127,000…open the valve. The voice is calm and steady.
The Earth holds its breath. The tension tightens. 84-year-old Kittinger repeats the request. Baumgartner’s breathing does not steady. There is silence – no response.
Still the rich voice talks, his vital audio link bounces life back towards the lonely skydiver. The slow military tone convinces and persuades that there is no chance of failure. It talks deep into the suspended mind of Baumgartner, and us beneath.
Each word says ‘stay with us young man. Let’s do this one step at time.’
Then slowly it happens. The door opens. A seat rolls forward and there, thousands of heartbeats above, two suited legs appear, balanced on a tiny ledge in space.
Kittinger again reminds, commands, reassures. Baumgartner rises to his feet. His helmeted figure fills the capsule opening.
The final command: “Start the cameras and our guardian angel will take care of you.”
Baumgartner salutes, then drops like a toy towards Earth.
First he is a white dot that bullets into the black, tumbles and spins, then regains control. In the first four minutes of the skydive Baumgartner goes supersonic and reaches a speed of up to 833 miles per hour.
Then finally, he slows to safety beneath a white canopy. Some five minutes later he returns from the edge of space and floats into the sunlight, lands gently…and then folds to his grateful knees.
Felix Baumgartner did this jump 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 succeeds.
It doesn’t sound like he’s keen to do it again…but maybe he won’t need to.
Two years later – October 2014 – and Baumgartner’s altitude record is broken by a Google executive, Alan Eustace, whose method of ascent looks even more terrifying than the drop. The links below illustrate the differences…both a long way from 1802…and the Earth:
- an article in Air & Space Magazine about Alan Eustace’s drop in 2014;
- a BBC piece about Felix Baumgartner’s jump in 2012.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018