Why Baumgartner’s ‘Space Jump’ matters

My fiancee saw something while reading news feeds on the Internet last week. It was the story about Felix Baumgartner, the man who wanted to be carried by space capsule 23 miles straight up to the very edge where Earth’s atmosphere and outer space meet…and then jump out and free fall back to that cold hard ground, like an insane double-dare-ya that started out as a high dive jump years ago and escalated from there.

She was intrigued. I had seen the same story, but passed on following it. To me, it was a publicity stunt not unlike Evel Knievel jumping the Snake River Canyon in the 70s, the Alien Autopsy on Fox some years ago, or the guy that recently just tightrope-walked across Niagara Falls. Yes, I know that it takes considerable skill to perform either the canyon-jumping and tightrope-walking feats, and I’ll be up front right now and say that I have neither the courage nor the skill to do either. (Nor the interest, for that matter.)

There’s a certain morbid curiosity in both of those two events, as well as Baumgartner’s space jump. Besides the obvious problem he would face if his chute didn’t open—or if he ripped or tore any part of his pressurized suit, The National Geographic detailed the five issues he could encounter:

  • 1. Baumgartner’s blood could boil.
  • 2. Extreme cold could stress the giant helium balloon that was to carry him to his destination.
  • 3. The wind could blow him off course.
  • 4. If he starts to spin, it could become uncontrollable, even fatal.
  • 5. The resulting sonic boom (from traveling faster than the speed of sound) could do unknown damage to him.

There would be a 20 second delay in the live coverage, in case one or more of those five things occurred. Which in my opinion was a relief. No need to watch someone’s head explode on camera.

Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger (now retired) had successfully done a space jump like this before, on August 16, 1960—he fell 19.5 miles. None of those terrible things happened to him…but he also didn’t travel as high as Baumgartner was planning.

The day came for the launch and both her and I watched online…and it didn’t go well. By that I mean, it literally didn’t even get off the ground. The winds were judged to be too high to launch the balloon. This went on for several days, until finally yesterday (Sunday) the mission was scheduled to take place.

Baumgartner climbed into his space capsule and traveled 23 miles high into the atmosphere, towed there by the giant balloon. He opened the escape hatch…and he jumped. Actually, he just kind of fell forward from the capsule’s outer steps. Within about 5 seconds he was already no longer visible from the capsule’s camera.

And–by now we all know that he made it. He landed successfully near Roswell, NM, a place where—67 years ago, allegedly—another space landing of a different type didn’t go so well.

The publicity stunt was now over. But wait! There’s more!

It turns out that, according to this Esquire.com story, there are real and practical applications to the data and experiences they collected from this project:

He’s demonstrated that human beings can safely fall further, and faster, than was previously known to be possible. This has real applications in the development of the emergency systems that will be essential for the advancement of manned spaceflight. For humans to finally reach further afield, for us to break our current forty-year-long holding pattern, we’ll need to make giant leaps in both rocket and safety technology. Dr. Jonathan Clark, one of the members of the team that made Felix’s feat possible, lost his wife, the astronaut Laurel Clark, when the space shuttle Columbia broke up at an altitude very close to the altitude from which Felix jumped. The lessons learned on Sunday might help us avoid similar catastrophes in the future.

So it looks like the only ones disappointed in Baumgartner’s success are the ones that wanted to see him make his mark, alright…when the project went horribly wrong and he plummeted to his doom, crashing several feet into the Earth’s crust.

Instead, the score reads: Felix Baumgartner 1, Earth’s Gravity 0. Gravity doesn’t lose many of these.


One thought on “Why Baumgartner’s ‘Space Jump’ matters

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