Well, there in front of my TV, that is, but some events give you such a feeling of thereness even if you are not really there. You know what I mean? The last time I was “there” for a historic scientific event was many years ago. I was lucky to have caught this latest one. Of course I had heard about the upcoming sky dive from the edge of space, but I didn’t know when it was to be and I expected that I would hear about its success or failure as one of those fifteen second gee-whiz tidbits on the news. But Sunday morning I got up, made my cup of tea and turned on the TV as usual. After an hour of HGTV I started channel surfing and found on the Discovery Channel a several hours long program labeled “Space Jump Live”.
It had very much the same feel as the NASA broadcasts I saw as a child – a view of a mission control room alternating with a view of a space-suited person in a tiny capsule and exterior shots of the craft and surrounding landscape. The TV commentators spoke in quiet, almost reverent voices, explaining what was happening, and sometimes there were long silences. They didn’t try to fill up every minute with talk. The thing that was different was that instead of “NASA” we saw the Red Bull logo everywhere.
We watched the balloon ascend, with the altitude and speed displayed on the screen. Finally, via cameras on the capsule, over 24 miles above Earth, we saw Felix Baumgartner step out of the capsule. Infrared cameras on the ground showed a tiny, white, human-shaped speck rapidly tumbling through the sky. After nearly four and a half minutes the parachute opened. They briefly cut to a scene of Baumgartner’s family cheering and hugging each other, then back to the tiny parachuted figure.
I expected a hard landing but he landed gently on his feet, took a couple of steps and sat down. I thought, “The parachute maker is a hero too.” Everything went so smoothly one might almost think that it was easy but of course it wasn’t. This was not at the same level as the moon landing but this was a significant scientific achievement, not merely an elaborate stunt. Think of some place that is 24 miles from where you are now. Now imagine falling that distance, faster than the speed of sound at one point. And landing safely.
The involvement of Red Bull seemed at once both cool/futuristic and a little bit wrong. But mostly cool. Profit is neither a dirty word nor a sacred one. Many atrocities have been committed for profit but the hope of profit also provides incentive to do stuff like this. There are two main forces that drive progress: war and the desire to make money. I know which one I prefer.
UPDATE: I see that the video has been removed. [dirty words... lots of really bad, highly imaginative profanity and curses] Maybe you can find it at the link above. I don’t know; I haven’t looked today.
UPDATE II: Okay, found another video. Let’s see how long this one lasts. It’s a little bit shorter than the one that was here originally and maybe not quite as good but it still shows the entire jump.