Felix Baumgartner, age 43, goes beyond the cliché “the sky’s the limit.” On Tuesday, he will step off a capsule twenty-two miles above the earth in an attempt to become the first sky diver to break the sound barrier. The first time people heard the sound barrier broken, it was General Chuck Yeager test-piloting the experimental Bell X-1, fondly dubbed “Glamorous Glennis,” out of Edwards Air Force Base in 1947. Now Baumgartner has set his sights on traveling faster than the speed of sound, without a plane to protect him. His biggest fear? Not the jump out of the capsule into thin air, but claustrophobia in his pressurized space suit.
Baumgartner’s coach Joe Kittinger was quoted in an article in The New York Times explaining his protégé’s motivation, “From the beginning of mankind, the boys want to go higher, faster, lower. It’s a fascinating part of human nature. We’re never satisfied with the status quo.” For General Yeager, the competitive instinct to attain the unattainable was much the same. Legend has it that the night before he broke the sound barrier, Yeager broke several ribs in a drunken horseback ride, yet insisted on pushing his plane to Mach 1 the next morning, hangover and broken bones notwithstanding.
The test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base had a wild desert in which to gain fame as renegades and cowboys in the history of aviation. Baumgartner’s context is a much more structured and cautious one, but that doesn’t mean he can’t also gain renegade cowboy status in the world of thrill-seekers and daredevils. Let’s hope he has the right stuff.
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