Last night Felix Baumgartner ascended in a balloon the size of the Statue of Liberty to thirty-nine thousand metres and then with the words ‘I’m coming home now’ leapt into space.
This event broke three major world records, the highest manned balloon flight, the highest parachute jump and of course the fastest man has ever been unassisted; Felix broke the speed of sound using nothing more than gravity and the will to do it.
Like many around the world I was very excited about this piece of history, I had watched the aborted attempts last week disappointed and I hoped that I would get a chance to witness this historic moment no matter what the outcome.
I have had a fascination with space for as long as I can remember and have always trumpeted man’s desire to push the envelope, to do extraordinary things and that was when I first heard about Joseph Kittinger. Kittinger was an American pilot who in 1959 and 1960 made three record breaking jumps from balloon. The image of him leaping into nothingness resonated with me, especially since his record had stood for so long. In much the same way as the Moon landings, part of what makes these feats so fantastical is that they never became routine and are relegated to history books. When my parents were growing up there were so many ‘firsts’. It seemed that man was just leaping forward, onto bigger and bigger things. My parents watched Sputnik beeping across the sky, heard of Yuri Gagarin on the front pages of their newspapers, saw Neil Armstrong make his historic step on their new-fangled televisions. And so naturally when I heard about Felix Baumgartner’s attempt I just had to watch, using the one earth changing development that I had been alive for, the Internet.
Youtube offered a live stream of the event along with accompanying data on wind speed, temperature, oxygen levels and altitude. As I saw that the mission was a go I contacted all of my friends and let them know it was happening. They all for the most part were asleep, but my parents were still up. It took a little convincing for them to get interested, they were tired and wanted to sleep. I showed them the video anyway and as best I could explained the science and majesty of this massive helium monster and the man who was trying to make history. I told them what I knew about Kittinger and about the age of heroes that I’d missed out on. They were not convinced by the story, but the obvious excitement in my voice kept them glued to the images. We talked about what we saw and watched with baited breath as Felix made his decent all hopeful that he would survive. And when he did we cheered. We had just witnessed a man leap from a balloon 39 kilometres above New Mexico and watched him descend tot earth in real time. What makes this story even more incredible is that I live in Vietnam, and my parents were sitting in a Chilean airport waiting for their next plane.
The internet has such a power to connect people, and like Felix, can inspire people to try new things and experience the world anew. It allows us unfettered access to all manner of details and information from strangers to loved ones. As Felix said before he leapt down to his family waiting so many kilometres below him, “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are.”