Based on the theory of General Relativity, Albert Einstein knew that a man hurtling through the emptiness of space wouldn’t be able to detect whether or not he was falling; he called this “a happy idea.” Of course, not enough people are experienced in the field of free-fall space-floating to corroborate this notion. It seems that some variables would have to be in check — does the parachute work? can I breathe? where is land? — before joy could creep into the equation; even then, the vision of Frank Poole careening through black space in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is difficult to shake.
Still, there must be something to it. After all, the Apollo 11 landing module was impulsively dubbed the “Eagle,” and we all know how the Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, only the second man in space and the first to stick around in low-Earth orbit for more than 24 hours, famously replied to a call from mission control with the elated cry: “I am Eagle! I am Eagle!”
For some, it’s a happy idea to find oneself among — or beyond — the birds, exempt from the rules of up-and-down. Take for example the parachutist and former French army colonel Michel Fournier, whose planned leap from 130,000 feet above the snowy fields of Saskatchewan this year will shatter the world records for both free-fall and human balloon flights. He can’t help but think of eagles, either.
“When you’re in the air,” affirms Fournier, who has 8,600 parachute jumps under his belt, “you are struck with such a high dose of adrenaline that you immediately take yourself for the most beautiful of birds, the bald eagle. Only parachutists truly know why the birds sing.”
I know that I once publicly decried Fournier’s leap as being a feat of “human extremist frivolity,” but after corresponding with him over email and getting an idea of his myopic sincerity, I’ve changed camps. Besides, I love space and am in no position to lambaste the dreams of others.
Fournier’s leap, which will take place in August of this year (after many postponements), has been dubbed the“Super Jump,” or “Grand Saut.“ It’s been in the works for over 14 years, despite a flock of financial setbacks — advertising space, incidentally, is still available on the balloon gondola that will bring him to altitude — persistent equipment failures, and the general incredulity of the scientific community.
The sexagenarian Frenchman is not easily dissuaded; he has an initial budget of 12 million dollars. Flanked by a litany of press attachés, engineers, astronauts and launch technicians, decked in a special “space suit” designed by the French Textile Institute, and high on 4 hours of pure oxygen inhalation, Fournier will reverse Neil Armstrong’s legendary axiom: One giant leap for man, maybe, but one small step for mankind.
Of course, this is not so much about mankind; Fournier frames his feat, rather, as a rare moment of pure individualism in a world — and a scientific community — increasingly defined by structures of collectivity. With the success of his jump, his website preens, Michel Fournier will become “an archetype of the Happy Man That Lives Out His Dreams.”
Moreover, it will dwarf the previous record set at the dawn of the space age by Joseph Kittinger, the US Air Force test dummy of “Project Excelsior,” an Air Force venture ostensibly created to explore the increasingly important issue of flight crew safety at high altitude. Kittinger, arguably the first man in space, floated up to 102,800 feet in a military-issued balloon, strapped a camera to his helmet, and dove off, arms splayed. He fell for 4 1/2 minutes at the speed of sound through the nether regions of space before passing through the familiar clouds and into the thick atmosphere of Earth. The footage of this feat is literally crazy to watch.
In Einstein’s defense, parenthetically, Kittinger plummeted to Earth so quickly that he didn’t feel as though he were falling: It was only by looking at the rapidly receding helium balloon that he even realized in which direction he was going. Fournier will climb higher, and fall faster. It stands to reason, then, that he might have more fun.
Now that commercial space travel looms closer, however, and NASA’s slated to send men back the moon, what’s the big idea with Fournier’s jump? Is this self-avowed altitude-junkie trying to grab onto a long-musty trophy, or does another staggering parachute leap through the ether warrant scientific merit of its own? The Super Jump team stresses the feat’s scientific worth; regardless of how strongly its solitude smacks of daredevilism (“I find myself perpetually battling the solitary nature of this,” Fournier acquiesced to me), the project is among the first to address the human body’s reaction to breaking the sound barrier, and emphasizes that establishing a high-altitude human presence will ultimately aid astronauts during pivotal moments of take-off and landing.
Fournier gives credit where it’s due, however, “Joe Kittinger is my idol,” he gushes, “I’ve always been obsessed with this notion that I could fly even higher than him.”
Perhaps Einstein was right, although not quite how he might have imagined to be. It may not be the emptiness of space, nor the feeling of disconnect from gravity’s influence that elicits such a strong desire to fly through the air, but rather the knowledge of being the one who flew the highest.