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.
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.”