su·per·son·ic /ˌso͞opərˈsänik/ adj. involving or denoting a speed greater than that of sound.
On Sunday, October 14, 2012 I was glued to Discovery Channel’s live footage of Felix Baumgartner’s 24-mile freefall from the edge of space — along with millions of other viewers who watched on YouTube.
Let’s place Red Bull Stratos in perspective.
65 years prior, Chuck Yeager piloted the sleek orange Bell X-1 after being dropped from a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress at 45,000 feet. Yeager flew past Mach 1 (the speed of sound) and became the first man to break the sound barrier. On the same day as Baumgartner’s space jump, the 89-year-old re-enacted the historic supersonic flight in the same place and at roughly the same time while flying in the back seat of a brand new F-15 Eagle — courtesy of the United States Air Force.
In 1960, thirteen years after Yeager’s Bell X-1 flight, Joe Kittinger set precedence for Baumgartner’s space jump by holding a 52-year-old world record for the highest and fastest freefall. As part of the Air Force’s Project Excelsior, Kittinger ascended by helium balloon into the stratosphere at 102,800 feet and then fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds at 614 miles per hour. This retired Colonel has a history with weather balloons, setting another record for the first solo Atlantic crossing by balloon on September 18, 1984.
Kittinger joined the Red Bull Stratos Mission team as Baumgartner’s mentor and mission control communicator, and saw the Austrian daredevil set a new record for highest jump while breaking the sound barrier.
I was live tweeting during the ascent and leading up to the jump. At times, the capsule ascended at a speed of 95 miles per hour. They estimated that it would take three hours to reach 120,000 feet, but Baumgartner wasn’t rising fast enough so they dropped a 60 lb. ballast weight to speed up the balloon — the biggest weather balloon ever used. As the capsule rose, you could start to see Earth’s glowing blue curvature. The footage was breath-taking!
Kittinger started going down the ergonomic checklist with Baumgartner. Suddenly the capsule hatch opened up and Baumgartner was dangling his feet outside. He took the leap and became the first person to go supersonic without the aid of aircraft — 4 minutes long and 834 miles per hour. His last words: I’m coming home now.
My jaw dropped as I waited for his feet to touch the ground. People started asking, “Did he break the sound barrier?” I asked the same question and thought, “What does supersonic feel like?” After touching down, Baumgartner explained:
The exit was perfect but then I started spinning slowly. I thought I’d just spin a few times and that would be that, but then I started to speed up. It was really brutal at times. I thought for a few seconds that I’d lose consciousness. I didn’t feel a sonic boom because I was so busy just trying to stabilize myself.
Now let’s weigh in on Mission to the Edge of Space. TEDtalks curator Chris Anderson tweeted:
Courage, Insanity, Genius or all 3? TED Talk invite en route. Congrats, Felix #spacejump— Chris Anderson (@TEDchris) October 14, 2012
Pro-cyclist Adam Myerson then tweeted in reference to Red Bull sponsoring bike racing (who later said he’d rather see NASA funded than war):
You really have to give Red Bull credit. They sponsor/fund amazing things. It’s more than good marketing. They make life more interesting.— Adam Myerson (@AdamMyerson) October 14, 2012
Rob La Frenais, curator of The Arts Catalyst, tweeted:
Well that was impressive. My phone just fired up on time for whole space jump! Nice touch to land on his feet, very buzz lightyear.— Rob La Frenais (@eminencegris) October 14, 2012
His colleague Nicola Triscott, Director of The Arts Catalyst posted a blog update today, putting Baumgartner’s jump into context with imaginative acts of art that represent flying, weightlessness, and falling. Triscott wrote:
Perhaps there is little poetry in Baumgartner’s action, although the team is keen to point out its potential usefulness for developing emergency escape procedures for returning astronauts, but it adds to the store of meaning that we construct around the falling body, and to our perceptions of space, fragility and risk.
However, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted:
The “Edge of Space” jump: A corresponding fall to a schoolroom globe begins 1 millimeter above its surface. I’m just saying.— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) October 14, 2012
What I loved most about Red Bull Stratos was that the entire globe could share in this magnificent adventure through social media and technology.