Saturday, October 20, 2012

To Infinity and Beyond!

(Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story)

Twenty-four miles. Think about traveling somewhere twenty-four miles from your current location. Your perspective on that distance would change depending on your mode of transportation. In an automobile, with light traffic and higher speed limits, you could drive twenty-four miles in a half hour or less. On a bicycle, pedaling at an average speed, you could make it in about two hours. Walking that distance could take around eight hours, if you're like me.

Now imagine that same distance, twenty-four miles, straight up in the sky. Seemingly at the edge of space. To give it a little perspective, when you fly with a commercial airline, you might top out around five miles.

If you've been paying any attention to the news lately, you might know where I'm going with this. Last Sunday a brave man named Felix Baumgartner climbed into a small capsule and, using the power of a huge hot air balloon, rose 128,100 feet above the earth (over 24 miles). Wearing a special suit to protect him from instantly freezing or suffocating from lack of oxygen, he stepped off a tiny platform, arched his back, and started a most amazing freefall.

The camera attached to the capsule showed him falling to an earth that was barely distinguishable. I watched it live, or almost live, as the sponsors built in thirty seconds of delay in case of a disaster.

I've included a very short clip with a few of the highlights. This gives you a tiny taste of the tension I felt as Felix stepped onto the platform and into the atmosphere.


He broke several world records including:
The highest freefall;
The highest manned balloon flight, and;
The first human to break the sound barrier in freefall.

Felix traveled 833 mph, faster than the speed of sound, before being slowed down by denser air. His only protection from the deadly atmosphere surrounding him was a very well-insulated flight suit, one that would also allow him to fly under canopy and perform a gentle landing.

Because he was descending so quickly, he failed to break the previous record for the longest freefall. Felix had a "mere" 4:20 minute descent before his parachute opened. To put that into perspective, a normal freefall usually lasts from 30 to 45 seconds, with a speed of around 120 mph. The freefall record he didn't break belonged to Col. Joe Kittinger, who in 1960 ascended in a balloon to 102,800 feet and then fell for 4:36 minutes before deploying his parachute.

I watched Felix launch in his little capsule and hot air balloon, then took a two hour break, and watched the last half hour with the final sequence checklist (given to him by Col. Kittinger) and the entire nine minute journey back to solid ground. It was exciting and scary at the same time.

And it made me wonder – besides the "cool" factor, why spend all this money and risk a life to leap from the edge of space?

Because of our global connectiveness, we humans tend to think that we know so much. After all, we have satellites to map the entire planet. We've been to the moon and back, circled the globe in space shuttles, and now have our own mechanical ET exploring the surface of Mars. But what do we really know? Seventy percent of our planet is covered in water, much of our oceans are inaccessible and unexplored. Earth is but a minuscule speck in the universe, and perhaps our universe is a small speck in something much bigger that we will never be able to observe.

We don't know a lot more than we do know. Exploration and new discoveries are interesting to say the least, and who knows—someday these findings might save the planet and all humanity.

I was disappointed when I heard a few years ago that our government was shutting down the space shuttle program. However, thanks to private companies like Red Bull, who sponsored Felix Baumgartner's record jump and skydive, we can still find pioneers willing to risk their lives in search of the next miraculous discovery; on earth, in the ocean, and in space. 

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