More than 7 million people were watching as Felix Baumgartner sat at the edge of his space capsule yesterday 24 miles off the ground and got ready to jump, in what was known as the “Red Bull Stratos” project, better known as the “space jump.” I saw it myself; he opened the door, and there was something there that certainly seemed to be space. (Astrophysicist and science translator Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out that if you consider it relative to the size of Earth, this doesn’t really seem like space or anything like it, but that’s just him being all scientific about it, and this is about wonder, rational or not.)
I held my breath. They took him through his checklist. I thought about how many times I would have said, “Uh, no, in retrospect, that’s okay.” I’d have done it when he opened the door, when he put his feet out, when he took off his seatbelt. My brain kept saying this, clear as day: “Eeeeeeeyikes.”
And then he jumped. I saw the readings that said he was going 600, 700 miles an hour, more than that, and I squinted, thinking, “That doesn’t really seem possible, but I assume they know.” His body tumbled and spun, or so it seemed. A timer showed how long he’d been free-falling. A bar on the bottom of the screen showed how much oxygen he had, exactly like it would in a video game. He wasn’t talking for a while; all you heard was panting.
Cut to: it all worked out. He stopped spinning. His chute opened. They gave him the wrong information on the wind direction two different times, but then he was on the ground, grinning, hugging everyone.
It was thrilling, it really was. It was an achievement, a curiosity, and a weird idea that came true. But as was the case when one of the news networks recently apologized for accidentally showing a guy shooting himself at the end of a live car chase, I had to wonder: Well, what were we all watching it for?
In the end, there wasn’t a lot to see, given how well it all went. It was tense, to be sure. It was nerve-racking. But it was nerve-racking only because of what seemed possible. What if something had gone wrong? With the live video going and the shots of his family watching from the couch and the microphone where you could hear him breathing? What would happen if the oxygen leaked and the bar suddenly dropped into the red? Would the commentators be saying, “Oh dear, it looks like he’s got 20 percent of his oxygen left … now 15 … now eight …” What was that bar even for, if not to make sure that any disaster that struck was as vivid as possible?
As exciting as it was, I felt a little strange about watching it. I don’t think it was a prurient impulse, exactly, but if something had gone wrong, I think we’d all be doing a lot of soul-searching about the whole thing, about the spectacle and the risk and the Red Bull of it all, and our souls would contain nothing different in that case than they do today. We just got lucky. Not as lucky as the guy who made it to the ground from 24 miles in the air in the care of people who literally didn’t know which way the wind was blowing, but lucky nevertheless.