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Felix Baumgartner's jump pushed against the limits of the human body
Spectacular" and "awesome" are possibly two of the most overused words in the English language, but they apply, in every sense, to Austrian adventurer Felix Baumgartner's latest exploit: a 24-mile free fall from the edge of space on to earth, unofficially breaking the sound barrier on his way down. Not only did Fearless Felix, as he is popularly known, break the record for the highest free-fall altitude jump, he did it on camera, the event being streamed live on YouTube to a — yes, record — 8 million viewers around the world. That was in addition to all the people watching it on TV, which means the jump, in our age of instant communication, became a collectively-shared experience, rating somewhere between Neil Armstrong's small step and the average extreme-sports stunt.
Primarily meant to entertain, Baumgartner's feat nonetheless involved more than a little science. His suit was pressurised to protect him against the thin air and to prevent his bodily fluids from boiling at the high altitude. The hot air balloon and capsule that took him up were specially crafted. As he barrelled towards the ground, millions saw him fight to correct his spin, reminded again that things could go very, very wrong.
Baumgartner has a history of daredevilry. His test jump in July was just shy of a 1,00,000 feet and in 2007, he jumped off what was then the tallest building in the world — the Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan. His career makes him a fitting standard-bearer of the human spirit of adventure, that same impulse that drove Edmund Hillary and Amelia Earhart, or earlier explorers who mapped our world. The difference is, this time, for a few minutes, we could share in his achievement and see the world through his eyes.
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