Monday, October 15, 2012

Pushing the limits

“The decision has been made. Felix Baumgartner will jump,” the Red Bull Stratos live feed commentator announced. After being delayed for a few days due to weather conditions, the Austrian skydiver finally went up about 39 kilometers above ground tonight with a helium balloon and jumped back to earth safe and sound.

This is nuts! The successful freefall has made Felix the first human being to break the sound barrier and reach a speed of 1,342.8 km per hour (Mach 1.24) without a vehicle. He later explained that traveling supersonic was “hard to describe because I didn’t feel it.” With no reference points, “you don’t know how fast you travel.”

There was no epic small-step/big-step statement. “I’m going home now” was what Felix said before he jumped out of the capsule. When asked what he was thinking before the jump, he said, “When you stand up there on top of the world, you become so humble. You do not think about breaking records any more; you do not think about gaining scientific data. The only thing that you want is to come back alive. This became the most important thing to me.”

Such highly risky act cannot be accomplished by one man. There was a support team of 300 people on the ground, including 70 scientists, engineers, and doctors who had been working for five years on the mission. Among them was Joe Kittinger, the former US Air Force test pilot who set the record for highest freefall jump in 1960. He’s the only person who knows exactly how Felix feels. Now 84, he acted as mentor and was the person who guided Felix through the mission from the NASA-style control center, instead of being bitter about himself not being the record holder any more.

Joe Kittinger said, “Records are meant to be broken.” After the skydive, Felix said at the press conference, “I want to inspire the next generation. I would love to be sitting at the same spot where Joe Kittinger is sitting here, and there’s a young guy sitting right next to me asking for advices because he wants to break my record.”

This is the inspiring spirit of humanity. We need the courage to keep pushing the limits, and at the same time the humility to encourage other people to do so. Felix was brave to step out of his comfort zone and facing uncertainty. Curiosity and dedication pushed him to explore new territories. What his success symbolizes is precisely what drives our civilization to move forward.


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