Historic Jump Heralds Bold New Era of Humans Leaping Out of Space Capsules For No Reason

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 15 2012 9:24 AM

Historic Jump Heralds Bold New Era of Humans Leaping Out of Space Capsules For No Reason

red bull space jump felix baumgartner
In this photo provided by Red Bull, pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria celebrates after he lands at the desert during the second manned test flight for Red Bull Stratos on July 25 in Roswell, New Mexico.

Photo by Balazs Gardi/Red Bull via Getty Images

When Felix Baumgartner plummeted 24 miles to earth from a capsule attached to a helium balloon, he didn’t just shatter the sound barrier and the record for most page views of a live stream on YouTube. He also shattered the hidebound belief that man could jump from only 19.5 miles above the earth’s surface—an insidious notion that has gone unchallenged in the 52 years since a brave U.S. Air Force officer named Joseph Kittinger did more or less the same thing that Baumgartner did on Sunday.

In the process, Baumgartner emboldened kids around the world to dream that they, too, could someday free-fall from the stratosphere for no apparent reason. And not just from the stratosphere, like Kittinger did, but from a slightly higher point in the stratosphere. Who knows what may happen now. Dare we hope that someday man might successfully jump from the mesosphere? Probably not, but it’s fun to think about, right?

I want to inspire a generation,” Baumgartner said after landing. “I'd like to be sitting in the same spot in the next four years as Joe Kittinger. There is a young guy asking me for advice because he wants to break my record." And really, who can conceive of a worthier goal for humanity? One giant leap for a man, more giant leaps for other men.

Advertisement

In the wake of such an awesome feat, it was inevitable that a few wet blankets would try to spoil the triumph by pointing out that it was essentially an exorbitantly expensive and risky marketing stunt by a company that hawks unhealthy sugar-filled drinks to sleep-deprived teenagers. But those incorrigible cynics clearly did not read Red Bull’s press releases, or else they would know that the company’s true aim was to provide answers some of science’s most pressing questions. To wit, if a man jumps from a balloon 128,000 feet above New Mexico, will he live or die? Now we know. (As my colleague Konstantin Kakaes wrote recently on Future Tense, Baumgartner's Red Bull stunt joins a grand tradition of companies funding crazy adventure.)

Like all great scientific discoveries, of course, this opens a whole host of new questions and avenues of inquiry, such as, what happens when a man jumps from a balloon 129,000 feet high, or 130,000 feet high? It would be premature to hazard a guess, and yet in the afterglow of Baumgartner’s achievement, it’s hard to resist. As the Los Angeles Times put it, “We still live in an age of wonder.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.