There was a moment not long after Felix Baumgartner stepped away from the protection of his capsule at 128,000 feet when his plummet was captured by infrared cameras and the screen was filled with black, Baumgartner appearing as a white, vaguely human shaped silhouette. Watching live, it very much reminded me of the falling man, that famous photo shot by Richard Drew of a Twin Towers office worker dropping headfirst to his death. Anonymous. Intensely vulnerable. Caught in larger forces.
Shortly thereafter, Baumgartner began to spin. At that altitude, there was little atmospheric friction to slow him down, and if momentum carried him into uncontrollable rotations, he could lose consciousness and die. Despite the theatrics surrounding the Red Bull Stratos, the marketing, the sheer commercial stuntery of it all, my heart started pounding. Was this within the range of normal rotation? Was Felix en route to tragedy? For a few seconds, while the announcer was silent, I could only speculate.
And then the spinning stopped. Baumgartner settled into the head-down delta position, legs slightly askew, and looked every bit in control of the situation – as controlled as you can be falling 23 miles to earth at more than 800 miles per hour. After four minutes or thereabouts, he popped his chute and then glided to a landing that could not have been more serene or gentle, and as he fell to his knees, I actually got a little teary.
Who cares if Red Bull bankrolled Baumgartner’s record-breaking leap? What does it matter if the company’s logo is plastered on the capsule, the suit, the parachute? At least he didn’t land on a giant bull painted into the New Mexico desert. The era of manifestly audacious government exploration is over, and warm-blooded people have been replaced by electronic probes and nuclear-fueled robots. It falls to privateers now, men with money and vision and courage, to go places we haven’t yet gone, like James Cameron descending to the bottom of the ocean. Red Bull certainly doesn’t need any more of my money, but I’m happy to raise a can in Felix’s honor. And even to Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz.
And anyway, when you look past all of the commercialism, past the technology, what you’re left with is a man, all alone, fragile, breakable, and mortal. And that’s where the real power of the Stratos jump lies. Because Felix’s jump is the kid hucking off the roof with a towel tied around his neck for a superhero cape. It’s the dude daring himself off the highest cliff in a water-filled quarry. It’s every person who ever jumped or leaped or stepped off into the great unknown, with hope and faith and trust and a little bit of prayer, too.
I don’t know what Baumgartner was feeling as he kneeled on the ground, hands resting on his knees, but it looked to me like stunned relief. Rather than a conquering hero, Felix looked like a man who was humbled by what he’d done and by the grace of a successful, and perhaps lucky, gamble. It seemed to me to be more honest and poignant than anything words could say.