Superman? Shrug. “Faster than a speeding bullet” is going to be hard to say without a smirk now that “faster than the speed of sound” has usurped it.
Adrenaline junkies weren’t the only ones who marveled as Austrian daredevil Baumgartner broke the world record for the highest and fastest skydive, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier without the assistance of a craft. Scientists and engineers considered the implications of the jump. Internet jokesters went to work creating memes and parody Twitter accounts.
And many viewers who once hoped to become astronauts — and those who know what it feels like to dream big — sat, riveted, for the four minutes and 19 seconds of free fall after that one crucial second of release.
Science is back in style
Baumgartner’s jump proved that science — space, especially — is cool again. August gave us the dramatic Mars landing of the Curiosity Rover, complete with its own handsome hero: Bobak Ferdowi, the mission control “Mohawk Guy” who captured hearts and minds with his eccentric style and informative science tweets. Now we have Baumgartner, with his equally chiseled features and even more attractive bravery in the face of danger. He and his weather balloon may well be among the two most popular costumes this Halloween.
Baumgartner has done more for science than make it seem dangerously sexy. He and his team, sponsored by the energy drink company Red Bull, have also contributed technology and information that will be used in future commercial spaceflight.
Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and a former NASA astronaut on three Space Shuttle missions, says the team that developed Baumgartner’s suit is working with companies that are building suborbital and orbital vehicles. Lopez-Alegria says people will be able to go on ballooning adventures to the edge of space, like Baumgartner — but they’ll remain in their spacecraft, of course.
“I don’t know how far those [companies] are away from flying, but the technology is pretty well understood . . . it’s a question about how fast people can get the investors lined up. We’re on the order of one or two years, not decades.”
As for Lopez-Alegria’s personal reaction to the jump, he found it “thrilling.”
“When they opened the hatch, and they had that view, as he was about to prepare . . . .” Lopez-Alegria said, “the people got a chance to see that view, and I think that’s pretty enticing for commercial space travel.”
Still, as an astronaut, he had reservations. The shuttle veteran said he certainly never wanted to attempt what Baumgartner did.
“I’ve seen that view, and the idea of jumping was nuts,” he said.