There was a moment when Felix Baumgartner stood on that little ledge in his blown-up space suit that I wanted to reach into my computer and pull him off the screen. Maybe take his little two-inch self and place it next to the other stuff on my desk. Glasses. Notebook. Pens. Felix Baumgartner.
He was 24 miles off the ground, the announcer said. That was two miles and 385 yards short of a full Boston Marathon by my calculation, which is a very long distance. He stood on the ledge, door open to his capsule that hung at the end of a long tether to a 55-story balloon, which is a very big balloon. The idea that he was just going to step off and hurtle downwards made my palms sweat.
“Doesn’t Denzel Washington play those parts where he goes onto the ledge to talk to the guy who’s going to commit suicide by jumping off the large building?” I said to myself. “What does Denzel say? Doesn’t he always offer the guy a cigarette or something? Talk about how no problem can be this big? Denzel should be here now. Talk to the guy.”
I was invested. I had spent more than two hours on Sunday taking the trip up into the stratosphere with Felix. They were two of the most interesting hours I ever have spent at my computer.
What Felix proposed to do was free fall back to Earth, FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF SOUND, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier OUTSIDE A PLANE. He would then slow down a bit, a parachute would open, then he would land and presumably go somewhere in his home base of Roswell, N.M., for a sandwich and a very stiff drink. The announcer, Don Payne, went through a bunch of things that could go wrong for Felix, but the one that struck me most was the chance that “his blood could begin to boil.” That did not sound like a pretty fate to me.
(“Tell him, Denzel, about the boiling blood. Tell him. Boiling blood could be very bad. Does he know?”)
The live feed of this event -- I guess “event” was what you would call it -- was on 40 television networks and 130 websites around the world. I watched on www.redbullstratos.com, the site of the sponsor, the mother ship. Red Bull, the energy drink, seems to specialize in promoting death-defying, extreme sports. This seemed to be the extreme end of the extreme.
By the time I joined the audience, Felix was strapped into his seat in his capsule. He already had been breathing pure oxygen, getting rid of the nitrogen in his body because nitrogen could cause the bends on his trip down. The balloon was inflated, looked like a giant condom at the end of a 200-foot tether. Ready? Ready. The balloon was released. When the tether line grew taught, the capsule was released. The trip began. A shot of Felix’s mother was shown at the launch. She was crying.
“This is a dangerous part of the trip,” the announcer said (I paraphrase.). “Not as dangerous as the jump, but dangerous. You want the capsule to get cleanly off the launch pad, which it did. Next there is a time, until he gets to 7,600 feet, when he won’t be able to use his parachute if something fails. He will have no time to use his parachute.”
The elevation was shown in a special box on the screen. A red designation around the numbers highlighted the danger, then turned to orange once the danger passed. Assorted other numbers for temperature and pressure (both inside and outside the capsule) and speed (both vertically and horizontally) also were displayed around the live picture that sometimes featured Felix in the cabin, other times showed the disappearing earth, further and further away. A space underneath the live picture showed postings from Twitter.
“Hope you have a laugh in space, pal.”
“He’s going up, up, up.”
“La capsule dans la stratosphere.”
There was an intimate feeling about all of this, each person alone with his or her computer, all of the drama unfolding in one-on-one quiet. Wow. Look at this. Felix belonged to you! God help him. There was also a universal feeling. The tweets came in assorted languages. Someone said that eight million people were watching on YouTube. Eight million people? Wow. Look at this. Felix belonged to everyone! God help him.
“If all goes according to plan, this could be the coolest moment we’ll ever see on TV.”
“I think this is our generation’s moon walk, folks.”
“The guy looks too calm right now. He’s 79,000 feet in the air. Holy Moly.”
“Felix. What a brave man.”
“This guy is freakin nuts.”
Sometimes a picture of 84-year-old Joe Kittinger came onto the screen. In 1960 Kittinger set many of the records that Felix was trying to break. As part of high-altitude tests by the U.S. Air Force, he jumped out of a plane at 102,800 feet, 19 1/2 miles above earth. The trip had mixed results. He had one small tear in his glove, which caused his hand to swell to twice its normal size during the jump. He also had trouble breathing on the way down and almost spun out of control.
Now he was Felix’s guide from the command center, the one guy who had done anything close to what Felix was trying to do, the one voice in Felix’s ear. As the balloon reached its final height, 128,100 feet, blown out now like a basketball, Kittinger went through a checklist. Felix flicked switches, unbuckled hoses, unbuckled his seat belt. The door to the capsule opened, the picture shocking, a full view of the ground far, far below. Kittinger directed Felix to move his seat forward, then move his feet outside the door.
“All right, step up on the exterior step,” Kittinger then said. “Start the cameras. And our guardian angel will take care of you now.”
This was where I wanted to call in Denzel. This was where I wanted to pick Felix off the screen and put him next to the paper clips. (You’ll be safe there, you damn fool.) This was where he said goodbye.
“I know the whole world is watching, and I wish the whole world could see what I see,” Felix said. “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.”
Then he jumped.
Just like that.
There was a picture -- the camera work was fabulous -- of him going straight down that was absolute science fiction. He looked as if he would be lost forever, spinning infinite orbits with the space junk from Skylab or something. A Twitter line appeared below the screen that said “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAH.”
I guess he did go faster than the speed of sound. He was measured at 833.9 miles per hour, which is more than fast enough. I guess he broke a bunch of records. All I know is he fell and fell, fell for four minutes and 20 seconds before his parachute opened. It was amazing stuff. He spun for a while in the free fall; then seemed to be able to control himself. He fell for a long, long time after that.
When the parachute finally opened, everyone knew that he was safe. A picture came onto the screen of his 70-person support staff celebrating in their mission control bunker. Then Felix landed in the desert, and a helicopter quickly landed next to him. Done.
I wanted to call Denzel.
I wanted to buy Felix a beer.