Was he brave or crazy? A hero or a thrill-seeker irresistibly attracted to dangerous stunts? Maybe all of the above. I’m talking about Felix Baumgartner of Austria, nicknamed “Fearless Felix,” who made history last week as the first man to break the sound barrier without the aid of a jet plane or rocket, or any means of propulsion at all.
Was he brave or crazy? A hero or a thrill-seeker irresistibly attracted to dangerous stunts? Maybe all of the above.
I’m talking about Felix Baumgartner of Austria, nicknamed “Fearless Felix,” who made history last week as the first man to break the sound barrier without the aid of a jet plane or rocket, or any means of propulsion at all.
He just fell — from a very great height. And millions of people all over the planet went online or tuned in to cable television to watch him perform his historic skydive.
Wearing a pressure suit that made him look more like an astronaut than a skydiver, he rode a capsule suspended from a stratospheric helium balloon to a height of 128,100 feet — about 24 miles above the desert near Roswell, N.M. Then he jumped out and hurtled back to earth, reaching a speech of Mach 1.24 (833.9 mph) before deploying his parachute and landing safely on his feet.
He even managed to do it on the 65th anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s flight on the X-1 rocket plane, when man broke the sound barrier for the first time in our history. Originally he wanted to make the jump on Oct. 9, but God obviously had other plans, because he had to abort due to weather conditions — and then, most appropriately, the date of Oct. 14 arrived.
Baumgartner’s accomplishment is the kind of thing that usually would have been achieved by a federal agency such as NASA or the U.S. Air Force. This feat, however, being a private venture bankrolled by a for-profit corporation (Red Bull, of all things), harks back in some ways to an older time, the era of Charles Lindbergh (“Lucky Lindy”) and Amelia Earhart. Even Baumgartner’s alliterative and admiring nickname is redolent of those days, although, fittingly, it’s something of a circus acrobat’s stage name too.
Mary Chapin Carpenter recalled that time in her song, “Heroes and Heroines,” in which she sings of “Way back when you made history / By flying planes across the sea / Embarking on your odyssey / You put away the danger.”
The days of the “pioneer on frontier skies,” when, in Carpenter’s words, “the world was dark and your only mark / Was the light of the northern star,” are long gone — and with them has gone, probably for most of us, a sense of the grand adventure of human history on a mysterious and less than half-known planet.
We have, so we have resigned ourselves to believe, no more dark enchanted forests, no more unscaled mountains, no more wild frontiers and untamed wilderness. Been there, done that. The globe is mapped to precision detail and plotted by GPS. We have even visited the moon — and then, seemingly, decided to scale back our ambitions. The death this year of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, appears to close a chapter of history: the Age of Explorers is past.
As Carpenter sang, “Now they say the moon is dust and ash / And California’s made of cash / We’re waiting for those hills to crash / Into sparkling waters.”
Then along comes someone who says to himself, “No one has ever done this before. I wonder if I could do it.”
And in so doing, he reminds the rest of us that we haven’t “been there, done that,” that God’s creation is always a place of awe and wonder, that the human body and human mind are, in the words of the Psalmist, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, as Solomon wrote, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out.”
It wasn’t just an amazing stunt, after all. It was a historic milestone, a record-breaking feat. No doubt he did it for the endorphin rush, and because it’s a way to attain a kind of immortality.
But it wasn’t a self-aggrandizing spectacle, with all of the grandeur of the moment wasted on his ego. He and his crew collected very important scientific data, and, viewed from a practical standpoint, he helped to show how it is possible for a human to fall from a great height and to attain incredible speed before landing safely on earth. The things we learned that Sunday could someday contribute to the development of better escape and rescue systems for returning astronauts.
Baumgartner has been called a daredevil, an extreme athlete. Yes, he is those things. But his achievement makes himself something else, something more: a hero.
He may be called “Fearless Felix,” but he isn’t really “fearless.”
“When I was standing there on top of the world,” Baumgartner said after his landing, “you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records anymore, you do not think about gaining scientific data. The only thing you want is to come back alive.”
He found that, in achieving something great, something for the history books, he made himself small. He saw himself in proper perspective. It was only right that, after his touchdown, he would fall to his knees and bow his head.
That’s why he’s a hero, and that’s why Carpenter was right to sing, “Heaven bless the ones who keep / Their bearings strong and certain / And Lord help the fool who said / You’d better quit while you’re ahead / A dreamer born is a hero bred / On earth and up in heaven.”
Jared Olar may be reached at email@example.com.