Monday, October 15, 2012

Felix Baumgartner, You Rock

There's only so much to say when we all saw the same thing, but DAMN, it was one cool thing, huh?

Yesterday, Felix Baumgartner rode a balloon up into the stratosphere, completed an elaborate and not entirely clear checklist (what was switch F6 for? did he turn it on or off?) and stepped off the railing of his capsule and into the waiting arms of gravity.

I don't think I'll ever forget watching the capsule's odd hatch roll away, pocket-door style, revealing the ink-black sky and the glowing color of the Earth. That part, in addition to everything else, was especially amazing.

Watching it live, and even though it wasn't in any way a surprise, I still had a very real heart-in-throat moment watching Felix just... step... off. It was the capstone moment to a weird trip that had just previously featured Felix awkwardly moving around in his space suit to fulfill the commands being given to him from Joe Kittinger, the old holder of the high jump record, from the ground. There would be long, agonizing pauses between orders when I, personally, was afraid it was all going wrong somehow. Kittinger, at least, shared my feelings: He always seemed relived when Felix got back to the radio to ask for the next step. "Attaboy," he said a few times, and it was odd to hear him use such Americanisms in talking with a man whose radio circuit and Austrian accent made him sound like Microsoft Sam.

NASA watched the whole thing with interest (in case their people ever have to reenter the atmosphere under less-than-ideal conditions), but ultimately it was a civilian effort. Kittinger's record was set as part of a US Army project; Bumgartner's, in contrast, was done for the sake of doing it, watched by the world and financed by Red Bull.

If it had been done by the Army again, or by NASA, it would have been cool, but it's hard not to think it's so much cooler THIS way, simply as one man's crazy dream and the huge crew of people who wanted to help him make it happen. Felix's mom, Eva Baumgartner, was there in the control room. Kittinger was there too, and he smiled when things went right. And that is as it should be.

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