Susan Baller-Shepard: Felix Baumgartner Infinity and...?

Felix in freefall

Felix Baumgartner in Red Bull Stratos 2012 attempt to break sound barrier in human form

I kept cleaning up the kitchen, I couldn't watch. I went upstairs to grade papers, but found myself listening for what was happening, and then, I came back downstairs again just in time to see Felix Baumgartner jump out of the craft that would send him hurling through space. I thought of all the space books I've read, about trips to the moon. I remember the story of Neil Armstrong being so heroic as the space capsule went into a spin and he and his partner were in danger of passing out from g-force against them.

When Felix went into a spin, I thought, "This is it. We are going to watch the man die in real time. I can't do it."

They showed mission control. I thought, "They're not showing him, because it's bad."

But, he stopped spinning. We heard his labored breathing again. He was okay.

The mission control people told him the winds were coming toward the cliffs, then away from them. They were getting the winds confused and there was Alex, making his way earthward.

I hated every minute of it, but I also wanted to watch it too.

When they were breathing a sigh of relief, "Oh good, he's at 6,000 feet," the mother in me was saying to myself,"

"Come on! He's at six thousand feet! You can still do a lot of damage from six thousand feet! He's not in the clear yet."

They would cut away to show his family watching. I did not want to watch them, if they saw their loved one, Felix, get hurt.

I, and no one else really, needs to see that.

This fall, I participated in a  Heartland Challenger Learning Center  event with other faculty, in which we were given a mock mission to complete, as a team. It is set up like a space mission control and a spaceship.

I was on "life support" and we nearly killed our astronauts because we let the humidity in the spacecraft get too low.  We kept getting hung up with communications. Sometimes our messages did not go through due to one person, unwittingly, holding up the flow of communication.

Sometimes we thought our team partner, in the spaceship, knew something that they were not privy to. Sometimes we got frustrated because we could not get the answers we needed to get our work done. Then, we switched teams. I liked being in the spaceship better than being at mission control. I liked the doing of the thing, rather than telling a person to do the thing, whatever the thing was. It was a great communication exercise...what messages get through? Which do not? As a new instructor, it's a fine reminder too.

Today, mission control was telling Felix to do something and sometimes he did not respond. There would be silence.

I thought to myself, "Maybe he's unconscious. What if he starts to die and we are watching?"

Then, his arm would move, or finally he'd respond. His poor mother.

Was this act today, with all its sponsors, was it courageous or foolhardy?

Did it give anything to science or was it just a ploy for marketing and to get new world records?

I'm not sure. I have read about his efforts since an August 2010 cover of Outside magazine had Baumgartner on it, a feature of him in it.

I wondered what drove him to this. The astronauts of the lunar era were heroic in fascinating ways, and once grounded, and once the missions were grounded, what then, for them?

Once you've stepped on the moon, and stared back at the marble of earth hung in the sky, does life all become a bit surreal? I read Buzz Aldrin's Magnificent Desolation - The Long Journey Home from the Moon and found it poignant. For a more romantic look at those lunar years, I loved the fabulous documentary Ron Howard presented "In the Shadow of the Moon" directed by David Sington and Christopher Riley. Aldrin said,"Simply put, I was without a career, and I was feeling the aftereffects of it all. As always, I was standing by, ready for liftoff, but I needed to realign my direction and find a new runway."

Having jumped, will Baumgartner, like Aldrin, be looking for a new runway? And, will we be watching?

I really don't want to watch a jump like that again. Moreso, I really don't want to watch a mother watch her son jump like that again.

Baumgartner in a press conference afterward said,

"When I was standing there on top of the world so humble, you are not thinking about breaking records. I was thinking about coming back alive. You do not want to die in front of your parents and all these people....I thought 'please God, don't let me down."

Baumgartner wanted to break the sound barrier and was going for a world record in highest free fall jump.

As people of faith, we are going for lessons in freefall too. Denise Levertov put it well in her poem  "The Avowal."  She wrote,

" would I learn to attain

free fall, and float

into Creator Spirit's deep embrace,

knowing no effort earns

that all-surrounding grace."

History of it: Mission to the edge of Space - Red Bull Stratos 2012


Taken with permission from Susan's blog at