What It's Really Like to Free-Fall From a Space Capsule

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 31 2014 3:05 PM

What It’s Really Like to Free-Fall From a Space Capsule

A year and a half ago, the world held its breath as skydiver Felix Baumgartner leapt from a space capsule 24 miles above the earth to set a new record for the fastest human free-fall. In the video broadcast live on the Web, Baumgartner appeared as a white speck against a black background, tumbling alarmingly before finally stabilizing, opening his parachute, and landing on his feet. It was an impressive (if rather pointless) feat, but the poor footage made the viewing experience less climactic than it might have been.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

That has been resoundingly rectified thanks to new footage from the seven GoPro cameras that were strapped to Baumgartner’s suit as he tumbled earthward. Ahead of a 30-second Super Bowl spot, GoPro has released an extended eight-minute video culled from its first-person footage of the record-setting fall. It’s both mesmerizing and stomach-turning to watch from Baumgartner’s perspective as the world spins like an out-of-control top during the most harrowing portion of his descent.

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The minimal dialogue verges on poetry, my favorite part being a dazed and nearly panicked grunt on Baumgartner’s part that’s rendered simply as “?” in the subtitles. Moments later he manages to form the sentence, “Feels like I have to pass out,” which makes the relief of his subsequent stabilization far more palpable than it was in the live footage.

I’ll admit I was dubious about the marketing stunt’s scientific value when I first watched it. But seeing it again from this perspective has made me more sympathetic to those who found the jump inspiring. If nothing else, it serves as a neat visual metaphor for the value of hanging in there when you feel like you can’t go on, as Baumgartner pulls through his terrifying spin to eventually find himself flying straight and smooth through the thin air high above the planet, home free.

His final, admirably understated verdict: “That was really tough.”

The full video is here

Previously in Slate:

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

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

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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