Felix Baumgartner: Blurring the lines between skydiver and astronaut

Austrian skydiver and BASE jumper, Felix Baumgartner, has become the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound without a vehicle. During his freefall, Baumgartner reached speeds of 833.9mph. His efforts have toppled a record made by Joe Kittinger in 1960 when he leapt from a helium balloon 31km above the ground. However Kittinger has still retained the record for the longest freefall, falling for more than 4m30s, in comparison to Baumgartner’s 4m20s.

To watch the video, click here.

So will this jump help advance human society or was it little more than a marketing exercise to get us to drink more sugary, caffeinated drinks?

Whilst most people will agree that this was a cool and exciting display, rating far higher than your average Sunday night TV, was there any scientific merit? Sure, it proves that a human in a spaceship designed like a suit can fall (and land) successfully from 1/10th of the way to the International Space Station; it proves that with a bit of calculated risk humans can travel faster than the speed of sound without the use of a vehicle; and it proves that humans can keep on jumping from higher levels, at faster speeds and for longer time periods.

The jump was certainly a tribute to the things that humans can accomplish, in a similar way to climbing Mt. Everest or circumnavigating the globe. To quote George Mallory, as humans we have the tendency to do something “because it’s there”. There may be no greater good achieved other than personal accomplishment and development.

I’m by no means trying to underestimate the great skill, precision and above all concentration, belief and the ability to stay ‘in control’ involved. One risk undertaken by Baumgartner was ending up in a spin with enough centrifugal force to do real damage to his body including the potential for his brain stem to separate from the cerebellum and cerebrum. This was an adventure and a personal journey 5 years, or arguably a lifetime, in the making. So maybe if a corporation is happy to fund such a journey and the only catch is that you have to have a logo on your coat, what’s the problem?

So let’s celebrate this for the sake of adventure.

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