Grantland‘s Brian Phillips just stole my thoughts on Felix Baumgartner’s truly incredible space jump:
A hundred years ago, before we took it for granted that we could all live on the moon if Congress would only raise taxes, a large public cared intensely about speed records, air races, parachutists, and feats of aerial daring. The morning newspaper brought the results of the latest sensational exploits. At the start of the 1911 Paris-to-Madrid air race, during which Louis Train crashed his monoplane into the prime minister of France, hundreds of thousands of people turned out just to watch the fliers take off. When Charles Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Airport after flying from New York to Paris, navigating by the stars, the crowd pulled him out of the cockpit and carried him over their heads for half an hour. It was the era of zeppelins and astonishment. Flight, which had been a crazy dream for nearly all of human history, was suddenly something we could do. The fascination with stunts and records was partly scientific: In the same way that gaps on the map were filled in by intrepid individual explorers, our sense of what was possible in navigating the sky would be defined by solo daredevils, inventors, and balloonists. But it was partly born of wonder: Each new accomplishment was a fresh reminder that people could fly.
128,000 feet is: the stratosphere. I mean literally.
Maybe the most incredible thing about Baumgartner’s jump was not that he did it successfully but that, for a short while, he brought the world back to that old daredevil wonder. Yes, he was sponsored by Red Bull and broadcast live on YouTube, but that’s actually kind of the point: He pushed the limits of human flight so far that he made the whole Internet remember that flight is like magic. He took social media’s constant search for the next big distraction and funneled it into old-fashioned amazement. In that way, his jump resembled the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in August. But where the NASA mission recalled the popular-scientific inquisitiveness of an earlier era of flight, the response to Baumgartner echoed the other part of the equation: the sense of purposeless glee people felt at the sight of a brave deed splendidly done. Baumgartner’s jump might lead to some scientific progress, in the form of space suit advances and so forth. But that’s not why we were all memorizing the numbers and freaking out when his visor fogged up and tweeting about every second of the fall.
128,000 feet is: a record that exists for no reason, and therefore one of the best reasons of all.