Why does the world need people like Felix Baumgartner?

The world needs more people who are willing to break their ‘risk averse’ nature and do great things.

Stratos Red Bull jump
Baumgartner jumped from an altitude of 39km and went supersonic on his descent [Jay Nemeth/Red Bull Stratos]

When Felix Baumgartner took a small step into the stratospheric void on Sunday, millions of people took that step with him. At an altitude of just over 128,100 feet (39,045 metres), the Austrian daredevil’s every move was captured by cameras filming the record attempt from inside and outside the Red Bull Stratos capsule.

News organisations around the world cut to the live Red Bull feed. Discovery Channel interrupted its scheduled broadcast to air the event live, generating huge ratings. The Red Bull YouTube channel broke a record of its own: The Stratos mission had been watched by 8 million concurrent viewers. Twitter trended around Felix Baumgartner. In short, everyone was awestruck by one man’s determination to put his life on the line by jumping out of a high-altitude balloon and forever etching himself in the history books.

Not ‘space’ as we know it

But the much-touted “space jump” wasn’t from space at all, even though Red Bull’s “mission to the edge of space” motto would have you believe Baumgartner donned a spacesuit and plunged from beyond Earth’s atmosphere. As many astute viewers of the Stratos mission commented, the internationally recognised boundary where the atmosphere “ends” and space “begins” is at an altitude of 100 kilometres (62 miles) above sea level – a boundary known as the Kármán line.

What altitude did Baumgartner jump from? 39 kilometres (24 miles) – that’s not even half-way!

Overenthusiastic marketing to one side, this is no reason to sniff at Baumgartner’s achievement. Inside his hi-tech pressure suit, Baumgartner may as well have jumped from space. Should your body be exposed to the near-vacuum environment at 128,100 ft, it would experience rapid depressurisation – after all, 99 per cent of the atmosphere is below you – and any fluid (ie, blood) would rapidly boil, asphyxiation and death would shortly follow. Therefore, Baumgartner was encased inside a pressurised capsule and he also wore a pressure suit in the aim of keeping all his bodily fluids from wanting to explode through his skin.

 Daredevil readies for supersonic space jump

To emphasise that this high-altitude record-breaking feat is very difficult, it’s worth remembering how long the high-altitude freefall record has stood for. In 1959 and 1960, Captain Joseph Kittinger carried out a series of high-altitude skydives for the US Air Force as part of Project Excelsior. One of the jumps in 1960 set the high-altitude jump record at 102,800 ft when Kittinger took the plunge in the aim of testing a new parachute system. That record stood for 52 years until Baumgartner floated to 128,100 ft last weekend.

For every step of Baumgartner’s mission, the now 84-year-old Kittinger was there. Through training and the actual record-breaking jump, the retired US Air Force Colonel provided support and invaluable first-hand advice for his 43-year-old Austrian protégé. During Sunday’s ascent, Kittinger’s voice was the only one Baumgartner heard via radio. The Stratos mission didn’t break Kittinger’s record – it, in a way, enriched it.

So Baumgartner successfully surpassed the high-altitude record. During the jump, he also broke the freefall speed record, ripping through the atmosphere at an astonishing 1,342.8km/h (833.9mph). That top speed equates to Mach 1.24 – supersonic (and then some). Coincidentally, when Baumgartner took his jump, it was 65 years to the day that test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier inside an experimental X-1 aircraft on October 14, 1947.

What’s the point?

All the broken records, statistics and high-altitude history are very interesting, but to many watching Sunday’s events unfold, the Red Bull Stratos mission was pointless. Critics pointed out that one man jumping from the stratosphere was little more than a stunt; others were frustrated Baungartner wasn’t doing it for charity. Many got stuck on the fact that it wasn’t a “real” space jump; some seemed annoyed that it was all just a Red Bull marketing ploy.

But if you focus on Baumgartner and his single-minded desire to break the high-altitude freefall record, it’s hard not to be humbled. This guy really did put his life on the line; he really did stand on that platform knowing he was about to jump into the unknown. The debate as to whether he’s incredibly brave or a bit insane will likely remain unresolved in the court of public opinion for some time.

Personally, before covering the delayed freefall attempt last week, I do admit to being ambivalent about the whole endeavour. For Discovery News I usually cover topics in space (and not the Red Bull version of “space” either – my news beat is above the Kármán line). But when I saw the Red Bull Stratos balloon lift off from Roswell, New Mexico, on the morning of October 14, it suddenly became real – I was about to witness history. A man was about to live to be a hero… or die in a failed record attempt.

We need a hero?

 Skydiver to jump from ‘edge of space’

For a little more than 2 hours, as the helium-filled Stratos balloon ascended, I was captivated by the live camera feed transmitted from the capsule. I lived those tense moments when Baumgartner reported a problem with a heater in his helmet’s faceplate; I hung on every word from Kittinger as he worked through the checklist from the ground. My heart skipped a beat when Baumgartner opened the hatch, flooding the capsule with daylight.

When he stood on that platform and said, “I know the whole world is watching now, and I wish the world could see what I see. And sometimes you have to go up really high to see how small you really are,” chills ran down my spine.

And then. He jumped. I shouted: “HOLY CRAP!”

I fell with Felix – we were on first-name terms by this point. I then cheered when the telephoto lens on the live feed spotted him suddenly control his rapid descent from a horrible-looking spin. He’s going to make it.

The biggest relief was seeing the parachute open after a terrifying 4 minutes and 20 seconds of freefall. I suddenly realised tears were running down my cheeks and that I had been holding my breath. The rest was a blur – parachute, landing, celebrations.

So now I’m left thinking: what was the point of all this? Far from the ambivalent attitude I had last week, I now know that we need people like Felix Baumgartner who do incredibly brave, yet sometimes baffling, feats of historical significance. Sure, science was done by the Stratos team, and the data will aid future technologies for high-altitude bale-outs for pilots and astronauts’ space suits, but the impact of seeing one human doing something bold not only inspires, it ignites a passion that can drive entire societies. For just a few minutes on Sunday morning, millions of people forgot their routine and ignored the chaos of the world to watch one man make history.

When Kittinger made history in 1960, he wasn’t doing it to break records or to “better mankind” for some altruistic motivation, he was doing his job; it was a military test programme to develop high-altitude technologies at the height of the Cold War. Still, it was up to him to step off that platform and fall into the unknown, making history in the process. He is a hero.

As for Baumgartner, his motivations are less clear – whether they are fame, marketing or glory – but he committed a heroic act to push himself faster and further than anyone in a helium-filled balloon has done before. He is an example of the raw human spirit that wants to explore and break records, simply because new discoveries are to be made and records are there to be broken.

The increasingly “risk averse” nature of modern society often views such events as a waste of time, but, to me, they are an embodiment of mankind’s basic desire to, despite the risk, do great things.

Ian O’Neill is Space Science Producer for Discovery News. He is also the founder and editor of space blog Astroengine.

Follow him on Twitter: @astroengine