The 834mph question

These are the facts. I offer no editorial on them at this stage. Yesterday, on Sunday October 14, the Austrian man Felix Baumgartner, a former paratrooper, jumped out of a balloon that was 23 miles above the earth, and, ten minutes later – four minutes and 19 seconds of those in freefall – landed on the earth – specifically, Roswell, New Mexico – having reached a speed of 834mph along the way, breaking three world records, including becoming the world’s first “supersonic skydiver” by breaking the sound barrier at Mach 1.24.

His jump was sponsored by the Austrian, ox-bile-based energy drink Red Bull, but its scientific impetus was NASA’s desire to create better pressurised survival suits for astronauts who might fall out of the stratosphere. (The one that kept Baumgartner’s body intact against the hugely varying pressures that marked his drop back to earth, prevented his blood boiling and his lungs exploding.)

A categorically brave man, Baumgartner has parachuted off buildings and mountains. He prepared for this record attempt by performing two practise freefalls, one from 71,000 feet in March and another from 97,000 feet in July. But this one was more like 128,000 feet, or 39km, if you prefer it in new money.

So, as I understand it, he’s now the first human to ever break the sound barrier in freefall; that was the highest freefall altitude jump and the highest manned balloon flight. I wish Roy Castle had been around to see it. Like most people, I saw the footage from which the iconic grab above is taken, and gasped as Baumgartner stepped out of the capsule and into … space. It was amazing. I was amazed that anyone would wish to do that, and that anyone could do that, and not retreat, bawling and sucking their thumb, into the capsule until somebody came and got them. Part of me thinks he is a nutcase. But I guess we need nutcases sometimes.

I do not follow television on Twitter, but had a little look afterwards and it was predictably awash with exclamations. (As we found during the Olympics, Twitter is the perfect medium for exclamations, and it can be quite sweet to see normally erudite people simply gasping in 140 characters.) I threw this question into the mix, partly out of mischief, but partly out of genuine inquiry. Making statements, or pronouncements, can sometimes seem a little arrogant; I quite like asking things instead. I Tweeted:

A man jumped 23 miles out of a balloon. And we have learned … what?

I was, within seconds, bombarded with responses. Most of them took my question literally and answered it. Some of them made jokes. I found this stimulating. Because it’s almost unarguably an amazing feat, and an amazing thing to have seen, I wasn’t actually looking for a fight. There’s little room for philosophical manoeuvre here: it’s amazing. But it’s a valid supplementary question: what have we learned from it?

The actual answer is that a man can do it. And that a man-made pressurised suit can withstand it. This is the research. More elliptically, we have learned that Red Bull has a phenomenal marketing department. We have also learned that the Space Race isn’t over, contrary to the Billy Bragg song The Space Race Is Over. I get the Space Race. It was all about global posturing during the Cold War, a show of military strength by the world’s two superpowers after the Second World War. In this brave new world, a super-sized democracy and a totalitarian state could afford to spend whatever it took to get a man on the moon, and get him there first (after a couple of dogs and monkeys). I also know that many technological advances were made during the Space Race that impacted on our earthbound lives, albeit mostly in kitchenware, dried fruit and sports gear, and, to be fair, satellites.

But you might ask the question, why are we still exploring space when there’s so much that’s going wrong with the planet we already own? Endeavour and exploration for endeavour and exploration’s sake is one thing, but it’s not as if we have finished with Earth, and it costs a lot of money to keep sending things up there. (Even, one assumes, the relatively austere sending up of a balloon to 128,000 feet and having a man jump out of it.)

There’s a Jerry Seinfeld routine, which I wish I could quote, in which he wryly suggests that the minute you have to invent a crash helmet to protect your skull while riding a motorcycle, you have to wonder why you invented something that could smash your skull in the first place. I go along with this. If we didn’t send people into space, we wouldn’t need to invent a pressurised protection suit for them to wear. We could spend the money on something that would help people on earth. No?

I realise that by even asking an innocent question about what we have learned from the amazing feat of Felix Baumgartner I risk upsetting the applecart of blanket adulation for him. I do not wish to subtract from his achievement, and his insane bravery. If you are not in awe of him, then you must think yourself as brave, or more brave. I am so much less brave than him, it would be weird to not be in awe of him. But surely we are allowed to question the point of the feat.

One person replied to my Tweet (“and we have learned … what?”): “That some people aren’t impressed by anything?” He was implying that I was not impressed by the skydive. But I was. I am impressed by big things, high things, tall things, far-away things, deep things … but impressing me isn’t enough. (Actually, I’m more impressed by selfless acts of charity or compassion than self-indulgent acts of bravery or endurance, but that’s just me.)

Another wit responded: “Man has opinions on music and films and telly. And we have learned … what?” Ouch. That’s me told. I’m not permitted a question, because I don’t do scientific feats.

Another asked, “Did we need to learn anything from it? It was a fantastic feat, just appreciate that.” Again, I’m being told to appreciate something. I do find a consensus issue like this one – and the Olympics, actually, although we’ve done those – slightly bullying. There’s only one verified reaction, and if you stray from that orthodoxy you are some kind of spoilsport.

And another: “That there’s pretty much nothing in this world that someone somewhere won’t be sniffy about?” And another: “If you are going to reduce everything to those sort of terms then almost all human endeavour is pointless.” Hmm, maybe he’s right. At least he didn’t say what so many people did, especially in the Guardian comments section under the story: “He’s got balls of steel.” Yep, because having balls is better than not having them, and having ones made of metal is better than having ones made of flesh. Are we still equating testicles with superiority? I do wonder often why women, on the whole, don’t tend to do things like jump out of things and climb up things and do things really fast just for its own sake. Why is that? (Women are great, aren’t they? I think so.)

It does not do to dwell 24 hours a day on poverty, injustice, corporate greed and cruelty to animals and people – like I do – you risk your brow becoming permanently furrowed, which is not a good look. But these issues require more immediate attention than space suits. So may I respectfully recommend that we look down with as much wonder as when we look up? And if someone questions something, do not ostracise them for doing so.

As Marge Simpson once said, “There’s no shame in being a pariah.”