It’s one of those events that captures the imagination. Felix Baumgartner took a helium-filled balloon 24 miles up, into the Earth’s stratosphere, and jumped. On the way down he started tumbling, but he corrected his position before it got out of control and ended up hitting Mach 1.24, or 833.9 mph (according to preliminary data). Such a speed made him the first human to break the sound barrier without a jet or rocket-propelled spacecraft.
Minutes later, after landing feet first in the New Mexico desert near Roswell, he dropped to his knees and thrust his arms into the air in victory.
Baumgartner is known as a daredevil skydiver, but this wasn’t an Evel Knievel-type jump. This leap had scientific and medical ramifications. A privately funded project dubbed Red Bull Stratos in honor of its sponsor, it will provide a range of fresh new data. By breaking the speed of sound in a freefall, researchers and engineers should be able to improve safety procedures for pilots and astronauts — and for space tourism. The project may also help improve spacesuits, which are necessary to prevent death by exposure to near-vacuum conditions — more specifically, a lack of breathable air molecules in space.
The project’s team included scientists trained in aerospace medicine, engineering, spacesuit development and the construction of capsules and balloons. One of the team’s leaders was Joseph Kittinger, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel whose 19.5-mile jump in 1960 precedes by a half-century Baumgartner’s leap.
The focus, according to Red Bull Stratos, is to scientifically contribute to aerospace safety by helping in the development of a new generation of spacesuits, improved protocols for exposure to high altitudes and supersonic accelerations and deceleration and in the creation of better parachutes.
Moreover, there’s something to be said for pushing the limits of humanity’s accomplishments. In 1924, when British mountain climber George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he gave the now-famous response, “Because it’s there.” The same could be said of humanity’s attraction to the skies above.
Interestingly, Baumgartner’s leap came on the 65th anniversary of U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager’s first flight to break the sound barrier in a jet. In its day, that was an incredible feat, and it led to big advancements in the aerospace industry.
Almost 22 years after Yeager’s flight, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, calling it “one small step for man, one great leap for mankind.” Baumgartner’s accomplishment isn’t equal to that magnificent human achievement, — neither in scope nor significance. But it was, both literally and figuratively, a giant leap forward.