Baumgartner’s Jump: Triumph or Freak Show?

A high-speed jump from 24 miles was a magnificent thing to watch — but it sure wasn't science

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Jay Nemeth / Redbull Content Pool / AFP / Getty Images

Felix Baumgartner of Austria jumping out of the capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos on Oct. 14, 2012.

We should all have been charged a nickel to watch Felix Baumgartner jump from his balloon on Sunday. His feat was improbable, it was courageous and it was oddly, fantastically beautiful. The sight of Baumgartner opening the hatch of his high-altitude pod and easing himself onto the little diving platform outside with the Earth curving away from him 24 miles (39 km) below was a jawdropping (in my case, literally) thing to watch. And yet a nickel seems like a proper price of admission; after all, that’s what you pay to see the sword-swallower and the fire-eater, right?

By the numbers alone, Baumgertner and his team deserve nothing but admiration. He jumped from 128,100 ft. (39,000 m) and reached a plunge speed of 833.9 mph (1,342 k.h), or Mach 1.24. It was -70° F (-57° C) at the altitude at which he jumped and he free-fell for 4 mins. and 20 secs. And yet he landed lightly and on his feet and walked away smiling and waving. Anyone else care to try a stunt like that?

But that’s the problem: magnificent as the thing was, it was a stunt. That was evident from the start in the way the event was framed — an effort to break the 50-yr. old free-fall record of 102,800 ft. (31,333 m) and to be the first human ever to exceed Mach 1 in a space suit. That’ll get you in the Guinness Book of World Records, alright. That’ll get you a top-shelf sponsor like Red Bull, which bankrolled much of the effort and had its logo plastered everywhere. And that’ll surely get you wall-to-wall coverage on cable and the web. But will it get you anything else? Not really.

(More: 50 Space-Race Highs and Lows)

There was a lot of chatter by the sponsors and the talking heads about the meaningful science the dive could achieve, specifically helping us design spacesuits for high-altitude bailouts and learn about how the body withstands Mach 1 acceleration. Well, not really. Pressure suit design is a mature technology, one engineers have been perfecting since the first pilots flew high enough to require pressurized cockpits. And suits that could withstand high-speed ejections followed shortly after.

What’s more, bailing out at a largely-airless altitude is, by definition, a matter for people in spacecraft, not aircraft, since planes and jets can’t fly that high. NASA engineers have been working on ways for astronauts to abandon ship the way Baumgartner did since the days of the Gemini program in the 1960s and have never cracked it. One very big reason: Baumgartner jumped from a stationary balloon. Astronauts at those kinds of altitudes would be moving, very, very fast — either up or down — bringing into play a violent kind of physics that weren’t involved on Sunday. This would be especially so if the crew jumped from just a little bit lower, where there might be too little air for a winged vehicle to get any purchase but where the atmosphere could still hit a diving astronaut like a cement fist.

Studying how a person outside of an aircraft or spacecraft survives a Mach 1 plunge is similarly dubious science. As people began to understand as long ago as 1965 when Ed White became the first American to walk in space, a spacesuit actually is a spacecraft — albeit a very small, form-fitting one. It provides physical protection from the surrounding environment, as well as air to breathe and a survivable level of ambient pressure. The physics and aerodynamics involved in controlling and living through the fall may have been radically different for Baumgartner from what they were for anyone who ever broke Mach 1 before, but the effects of the acceleration would be more or less the same.

Still, it’s only the worst kind of crank (guilty, I suppose) who could watch the spectacle of Baumgartner’s jump and crab about the lack of substance — even if it made me wince to see that nearly all of the news outlets bought and then sold the faux science angle so credulously. Even that, however, does not mean that we’re not all justified in watching the video of Baumgartner’s jump again and again — preferably on the largest screen possible since that’s the only way you can even begin to grasp the breathtaking sights he saw and the nature of the feat he achieved. And it doesn’t mean that if I ever met him I wouldn’t shake his hand with real admiration. What he did was deeply, extraordinarily brave and cool — even if it wasn’t much more than that.