A man who fell to earth

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At a height of around 100,000 feet, the sky is pretty much black, the Earth is predominantly blue and the curvature of the horizon is quite apparent. To all intents and purposes, save for the continued presence of gravity, one is in space. Officially, however, space begins at 100 kilometres (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface except when it’s necessary to talk about the first American spacemen  at which point the threshold suddenly drops to 80 kilometres (50 miles). By either criteria, Joe Kittinger never became a spaceman nor, in his return to terra firma, did he fall either as far or as fast as John Glenn or those who followed him. Perhaps for this reason or perhaps because he ascended modestly by means of a helium balloon rather than in spectacular fashion, lashed to a thundering ex-missile, Kittinger’s record-breaking ascent is often forgotten. However his ascent is, in some respects, nothing special: stratospheric balloon flights had been made previously and were made subsequently although Kittinger’s personal best of 102,800 feet remains the record. What is more remarkable, however, is his descent and in particular, the manner of it: he simply jumped from the balloon gondola and fell headlong towards the high desert lay some 20 or so miles below, an act that, on the face of things, seems extraordinarily courageous or, more rationally, starkly and simply insane.

Kittinger was ostensibly researching the impact upon military pilots of ejecting from their aircraft at exceptional altitudes. The fact that only spy-planes could fly at anything like this height (and then only to around 70,000 feet) suggests that this flight, Excelsior III, like so much American military research, carried with it a barely hidden agenda of “bigger, further, faster, higher” or any other appropriate superlative that could qualified by the adjective “first”. So it was that, early in the morning of August 16 1960, a year before Yuri Gagarin became the first official spaceman, Kittinger, garbed in a prototype space suit (complete with a leaking glove that he opted to not mention until his return to earth) began his ascent from the New Mexico desert. Around one and a half hours later, his balloon came to equilibrium with the surrounding air and his height stabilised. At this point, with further ascent ruled out by the laws of physics the only direction to go was down so he simply walked to the edge of the gondola and kept on walking.

Cameras record this moment of apparent insanity when, stepping over the edge upon which was painted “This is the highest step in the world”, he opted to fall some 20 miles, much of it with only a tiny stabilising parachute to aid him. He could have had little confidence that he would land alive since a previous jump had resulted in his becoming entangled with this parachute and narrowly avoiding being seriously injured by it. Yet jump he did and fall he most certainly did, reaching a top speed of well over 600 miles an hour straight downwards through the minimal wisps of air that surrounded him. He fell in a sense, at a speed and to an extent that no-one has ever done since and, given that his ostensible purpose could have been achieved from a far lower – although equally potentially lethal altitude, we can only marvel and ask why.

To break an altitude record would be an obvious explanation but he could have done that and then, remaining in his balloon, gently descended in a relatively safe fashion. He was, to all intents and purposes, a spaceman yet he rejected space and hurled himself back to earth in a physical and organic fashion that no re-entering spacecraft could ever match. To do this, he had to overcome one of our most primeval and deeply entrenched inhibitions: the avoidance of falling. In dreams, we experience the sensation of falling and it impacts upon us so forcefully that we often awaken in fright, knowing all the while that no fall is actually happening yet forced by our nature and development to regard even the subjective sensation of falling as being mortally dangerous. As an inhibition to be overcome, this must surely be amongst the strongest and the best supported by reason. It seems almost beyond belief that anyone could countenance such a fall, knowing that it would last for over four minutes. The exuberant freefall of the skydiver is perhaps just about comprehensible to those whose knees tremble at the act of standing on a chair to change a lightbulb: however it lasts but moments compared to Kittinger’s protracted headlong plunge through the near-vacuum of near-space (in fairness, my skydiving daughter will tell you otherwise: as in most life-threatening situations, one’s sense of duration is greatly stretched as the world goes into slow motion until the parachute opens).

In a strict sense, he was not a spaceman save for the manner of his return to earth: he fell with simple ballistics but, unlike the spacemen who followed him, he fell without the steel shroud of a spaceship to protect him. He fell all but unprotected and, if the 14,000 miles an hour of a formerly orbiting spaceship re-entering the atmosphere makes just over 600 seem slow, his comparative nakedness must surely constitute a balancing factor. Add to this the timestretching of crisis and those four and a half minutes of falling must have lasted a subjective lifetime. Perhaps then, one can conceive of a life of permanent and continuous fall. Arguably, objects falling together in a vacuum will remain in their initial spatial relationships: hence, as long as I fall with it, my cup of tea and I will still maintain our traditional relationship until some force comes along to disrupt us. Maybe then, falling is nothing to fear and we should reserve our fear for the cessation of falling. The argument is specious, however and on a par with the idea that excessively high blood pressure is not dangerous and that the only condition to be feared is excessively low (i.e. no) blood pressure.

Kittinger is still falling, hearing nothing save the sounds of his body and spacesuit. There is no air to roar as he rushes through it yet there is not the supposed silence of space. Silence, we discover, is an impossible human experience. As the composer John Cage found out, even in the quietest places, we are still immersed in a world of sound : sound generated by the flowing of our blood and the activity of our nervous systems. So Kittinger falls on down the sky: lacking normal cues, he is devoid of any real sense of velocity and hearing only the sounds of himself. Of what then is he conscious as he drops headlong? He didn’t say.

Possibly, there may be a level of adrenalin intoxication that results in a suspension of normal consciousness: we know that it influences our perception of the passing of time and maybe it is really that simple. At these moments, perhaps we are not fully conventionally conscious of what would otherwise be a wholly overwhelming experience. Perhaps that is how others who have fallen to earth from, say, the Moon have retained their almost unbelievable sang froid. It may be as simple as a defence mechanism that dulls the mind to the point that what would be beyond all possible experience and impossible to bear becomes, if not prosaic or mundane, at least sufficiently diluted to be manageable. Dumbing down may, in this limited sense, be a survival trait in the face of exceptional and circumstances that would otherwise drown us in sensation and speculation.