On Sunday the Austrian adventurer Felix Baumgartner made history. He leapt from a tiny capsule suspended beneath a helium-filled balloon, 24 miles above the earth’s surface, before plunging towards the ground, breaking the sound barrier, as well as numerous other records as he went. His parachute eventually deployed after a breathtaking four-minute freefall, and he made a safe touchdown on the warm New Mexico earth.
I watched his descent live, at once impressed, gripped, fearful, amazed. One thing I marvelled at was his sheer disregard for his own safety. But also the effect that watching the feat was having around the world. Millions tuned in despite the very real risk of witnessing disaster. And in the days since I have heard countless conversations expressing shock and awe at his daring. The young and old alike have been moved by Baumgartner’s exploits.
No senior citizen was more intimately involved in the feat than Joe Kittinger, 84 now and the capsule communicator on this mission, the man charged with talking the Austrian through his endeavor from the ground. Kittinger himself was a record-breaking skydiver and then a fighter pilot in Vietnam, where he was shot down and held prisoner for a year. Later he flew a balloon solo over the Atlantic.
Their feats remind me of other adventurers who risked so much in the pursuit of what were often quixotic goals.
The American flying ace Chuck Yeager, who was immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, was the first pilot to travel faster than sound in 1947. On the same day as Baumgartner’s leap of faith, and on the 65th anniversary of his own historic flight, Yeager was breaking the sound barrier again in an F-15 Eagle in the skies above Las Vegas. Yeager is 89 years old.
It’s not just in the skies that these risk-takers and daredevils have thrilled and intrigued us. What about the great mountaineers? The brave climbers who sought to conquer Everest, adventurers such as George Mallory, who perished during his third attempt on the summit in 1924. What motivates these men? Mallory was asked why he wanted to scale the great peak and famously replied: “Because it’s there”.
So what do we learn from these pioneers? Is it to value the pursuit of scientific discovery? Or to push the traditional human boundaries – faster, higher, further? Or is it to try and satisfy a more fundamental curiosity – to establish how we tiny humans fit into a much bigger picture. I like to think it is the latter. Sometimes the really interesting discoveries are made when leaping, like Baumgartner, into the unknown.
As he said before stepping into the void, 24 miles up in the stratosphere, “I wish the world could see what I see. Sometimes you have to go up high to see how small you really are.”