I have a sweet tooth for feats that combine a fair measure of sci-fi, like “the Man of Steel”–the original “faster-than-a-speeding-bullet” Superman; display a quantity of courage given to few among us; and have the added benefit of increasing the base of man’s knowledge in some meaningful way! How about you? Do you find these feats delectable, too?
Unless you live on the putative new planet Alpha Centauri-B, four light years away in the cosmos, you know that Austrian Felix Baumgartner just visited near that celestial neighborhood. Last Sunday afternoon above New Mexico, he soared into the stratosphere–nearly 24 miles up in a capsule strapped onto a balloon by then expanded to the size of a football field and 56 stories tall.
But his stay was rather brief, as he promptly opened the capsule’s door and leaped—well, stepped off the capsule’s front porch. But what a step it was, both for him and for us watching below! Within 30 seconds Felix was traveling at the speed of sound–the first man ever to do so when not encased in a powered vehicle. Unfortunately, rather than having the appearance of Iron Man casually heading home from a test flight, Felix began to spin end over end uncontrollably–a type of spin that had rendered previous hyper-altitude skydivers unconscious. While Felix’s mother and other onlookers became more and more concerned, he managed to stabilize his body and safely land nine minutes later.
To add to the day’s drama, coincidentally October 14th marked the 65th anniversary of the day on which the legendary pilot Chuck Yeager earned the title of “the fastest man alive” when he became the first person to break the sound barrier. General Yeager, now 89 years old, reenacted the event last Sunday as he flew a jet fighter over the exact spot in the Mojave Desert and at the same time of day that he first achieved his iconic feat in 1947.
While Baumgartner’s jump may seem in some ways theatrical, he understood that it was a deadly business, something to prepare for to the last detail. Much as Chuck Yeager approached flights in highly temperamental, experimental aircraft. Many years ago I met a man who had worked with Yeager. He told me that while the general was not a college graduate, he approached his test flights with the skill of a highly competent engineer. Similarly, Baumgartner was supported by a NASA-like, mission-control team of 300, including more than 70 engineers. Their two objectives: to bring him back safely from the edge of space but also to use and thus test space suit technology necessary to avert the sort of tragedy that occurred when the Columbia space shuttle broke up over Texas upon re-entry into the stratosphere.
The exploits of individuals such as Baumgartner and Yeager give birth to a number of “whys?” Why are we insatiably fascinated by these feats, why do people take on these risky challenges, and why can some among us perform in remarkably competent ways even when shrouded in the stress and duress of risk beyond what most people can comprehend?
Some would classify Baumgartner’s sky dive as a publicity stunt, and the man himself a garden-variety daredevil. But what he did is different and important in discernible ways. I can still remember reading of people who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Did you know that you can visit the barrel museum at the Falls? If you do, you’ll learn that in October 1901 Annie Taylor became the first person to conquer the Falls in a barrel. Done solely to create fame and fortune for Annie, she nevertheless died penniless. But my favorite barrel story is of Bobby Leach, who plunged over the Falls in 1910 in a steel barrel. Bobby survived, but in his plunge broke both kneecaps and his jaw. Years later while touring in New Zealand, Bobby slipped on an orange peel and died from complications related to the fall!
Think of other thrill seekers we can name, some really famous ones! The stuntman and entertainer Evel Knievel attempted over 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps, some with semi-disastrous results. In fact, the 35 broken bones he suffered during his career has earned him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. But his most memorable stunt was his 1974 attempt to fly across Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket. Fortunately, though he nearly fell into the river, he lived though his failed attempt. As corny as this sounds now, I can clearly recall that the build-up to his attempt had the entire nation transfixed. Why is that?
Let me answer with a question. What are the types of books that we simply can’t put down? The movies we cannot turn off before they conclude? It’s easy, stories to which we don’t know the ending! Mysteries and adventures. But there is no substitute for witnessing an adventure in real time! Simply stated, the risk-taking adventures of a Felix Baumgartner add to the texture of our lives, leaving with us a sense of wonder that transcends Knievel-era entertainment as entertainment.
Why is all this so important? Because we revel at the success of risk-takers in pursuit of knowledge they can share. That celebratory expression separates the emotional chasm between entertainment and astonishment, making the latter real and permanent to memory. What occurred last Sunday over New Mexico was not the intellectual equivalent of a trained squirrel paddling a boat across a pool. What we witnessed is one of our species diving unprotected from a capsule into a rarified ocean of nothingness from five times the height of Mt. Everest. Surviving it all, not because he was lucky enough to find a particularly strong barrel before challenging Niagara, but because a cadre of our kind applied their divine ingenuity, creativity, courage, and endurance to a scientific project that, while risky, was worth doing! That gained more than fame and money.
This week let us seek out and revel in the lives of other risk-takers. The single working mother who decides to go back to school at night even though she has yet to determine how she can fit such an endeavor into an already trying existence. The entrepreneur who nurtures a concept others would consider too chancy, as he or she directs the entirety of their physical energy and efforts of consciousness to kindle a little success, then much more. The woman who later in life begins to learn to play the fiddle, seeking to improve her skill solely for the joy it instills in her soul. In singular ways each of these risk-takers is diving into a celestial abyss, knowing that if they hold back, standing eternally on the threshold or the front porch, they will never confront and break through life’s barriers.