Friday, October 19, 2012

I Cried for Felix Baumgartner

On my flight to Omaha, Nebraska this morning, my little CRJ200 airplane ride gave me a white-knuckled, bumpy landing onto the Eppley Airfield runway.

I later found out that the weather got worse with warnings for wind shear at the airport. Some airplanes were circling, waiting to land, and I heard that one pilot was candid enough to say to his passengers, "Sorry folks, our computer is warning us of wind shear and so we are circling to land." Any airplane enthusiast like me would be concerned by such a bold statement, knowing that wind shear has historically led to aircraft accidents on takeoff and landing.

I am fascinated by commercial flight but also have an illogical fear of it. One of the things that happens to me if I get nervous during a turbulent landing or a particularly ugly takeoff is that my mind becomes very clear. When this happens, my priorities snap into place. As my subconscious flips through all of the airplane trivia I know of what could go wrong, or when I think of the possibilities for human error, bad weather or malfunctioning machinery,

I get a healthy shot in the arm of adrenaline-infused-humility about the fragility and preciousness of human life.  

I've been in a bad mood lately, making really immature proclamations like, "I just want to get hit by a bus." Even while saying this, I know how ridiculous it sounds, but I also know it is a desperate reaction to being overly scheduled and under chronic stress.

We humans sometimes say violent things that we "wish" would happen. It can provide a temporary sense of relief from whatever minor annoyance life gives us. But we realize we don't mean any of it when there are sudden moments of clarity, like turbulent flights, or car accidents, or loved-ones diagnosed with cancer.

When our lives are in jeopardy we experience higher levels of gratitude and yearning for our time on Earth. 

You may argue that, No, you can feel that way when you experience the birth of a child, or something, but I am not talking about that kind of gratitude. I am talking about that survivor kind of gratitude where you say to yourself,

"I WANT this life and this life is mine and as soon as I get off this terrible flight, I am going to kiss the ground and be grateful for every minute I have on Earth!"

The problem is, as soon as my flight lands, I exhale one long breath... and then I turn on my iPhone to start catching up on emails. The surge of acidic adrenaline that was just stinging my veins moments before is now being flushed out by regular, dull cortisol.

I was a Junior in college when 9/11 happened. At the time, I often imagined what it would be like to be sitting on one of the hijacked planes, knowing there was no way out. I thought about the people trapped in the buildings who came to the conclusion they were eternally stuck so they jumped to their deaths. I had so much empathy and compassion for those passengers and victims. I couldn't help but imagine their anger and their regret, feeling that sense of, This life is MINE and I do not want it taken from me right now. I am not ready. I know I was yelling at my kids this morning and I got angry at my wife when I realized I'd be late for work, but now I just want a second chance so I can walk outside, look up at the sun, hug my family fiercely, and stay alive one more day.

But they couldn't.


It is with these macabre thoughts that I bring you to last Sunday, October 14th, 2012.

My brother called me at 10AM and hoped that he had not woken me up. I'd been up since seven, so it was no big deal. He told me to log on to in order to watch the now famous Mission to the Edge of Space. Daredevil skydiver Felix Baumgartner traveled 24 miles up to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere in a stratospheric helium-filled balloon, then jumped out of his capsule, wearing a state-of-the-art pressurized suit and completed a freefall jump that broke the speed of sound.

The ascent up to 128,100 feet where his balloon leveled off took over two hours. I watched every minute of it. The coverage of this event was unparalleled to any live event I've experienced, and the fact that it was on a 20-second delay in case something went wrong, made it even more real. This wasn't the kind of 20-second delay they have for the Oscars in case someone says something politically over-the-top. This was more like a just in case his body rips apart in front of seven million viewers type of precaution.

For half the day, I sat at my kitchen table in my pajamas with my hands clasped and tears rolling down my face. I was literally talking out loud, saying the Lord's Prayer (the only prayer I know) and cooing words of encouragement to Felix, saying, "You can do this Felix, you are gonna be OK!" 

But I did not think Felix was going to be OK. I had this protective sense of dread and it was as strong as the fear I feel on bad airplane flights.  

Felix is a complete stranger who I will never personally know, and yet my heart pounded so fast and loud as though I were right there with him, feeling claustrophobic in his little pod, doing his checklist right alongside him as he went up and up and up. There were so many heart stopping aspects of this event, and viewing them live was incredibly intense. I felt empathy and concern for these people as though I knew them. In particular, I was touched by:

  • Felix's mother, who broke out into tears when his balloon took off, and who also wore a little green plastic ring in the shape of an alien face (the launch took place in Roswell, New Mexico where, of course, aliens are famous).
  • Joe Kittinger, the 84-year-old retired Air Force colonel and highest skydive record-holder who was the only one allowed to talk to Felix on the radio. Joe would say encouraging things like, "Atta boy!" when Felix would finally reply to him after nail-biting pauses in their radio contact.
  • As he went up in his capsule attached to the world's largest helium balloon, Fearless Felix became more fragile the higher he went up. I could barely handle it while he explained in a concerned voice that his visor heater was not functioning. 
  • The moment when Felix stepped off the platform and his body just silently fell... It was such a lonely image. His last words had been, "I am going home now," and I knew that those words would work well whether he made it to the ground dead or alive. The idea of that made me feel so sad for his mom and his family. They would have to wait in agony for several minutes with the rest of us in order to find out if Felix would survive.

Felix's jump got me thinking about how incredible the moon landing must have been for viewers watching at home. But it also got me thinking of how tragic the Challenger disaster was, when kids not much older than I actually witnessed it live on TV in their classrooms, blinking questionably at a small image of twisted smoke high in the sky. That was what I was afraid of for Felix (and for Red Bull) – that this would turn from an incredible science odyssey into a horrible technical disaster. I reflected on the fact that tens of thousands (or more?) human beings die every day, and yet,

Millions of hearts can focus in on just one soul and feel a strong collective concern for it. 

On Twitter and other social media sites, there were countless wishes for good luck and prayers driven at this one human being. It was one of those times when, instead of feeling exhausted by advances in technology and social media, I felt comforted by it. Felix's quote, garbled by static, was,

"Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are." 

It is clear that Felix experienced the same intense emotions, including the tears that we were experiencing on the ground.

It goes without saying that Red Bull accomplished the highest form of brand essence by funding this five year project and boldly televising live to the world. Working in advertising, this is the most successful form of brand endorsement I've ever seen, complete with a "Stratos Spaced Out Remix" playing during a perfectly edited video montage moments after Felix successfully completed his jump. I thought it was crazy that Red Bull Media House would be pulling this all together at the speed of sound (excuse the pun), while Felix was actually still going up to space, not knowing if he would even make it down alive. Maybe it didn't happen that miraculously and it was actually a little more smoke and mirrors, in the same way that victory t-shirts and hats need to be printed, stitched, and ready to go for both teams before The Super Bowl game is even finished.

The deepest message I took from watching Felix Baumgartner make history with his record-breaking freefall from Space is that life is precious. Whatever it takes, whether it is a turbulent airplane flight or skydiving from 24 miles above the earth, we could all use a reminder to feel grateful to be alive.

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