The Man Who Fell to Earth

October 17th, 2012

Herbert James Draper, “Lament for Icarus,” 1898

The cautionary tale of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, tells us not to dare to excel or achieve too much. The same goes for the story of Cain and Abel, as Diane Arbus wrote, “If, as is often said, you can’t win, it is perhaps because when you do you have so much to lose. To put it a little gloomily, winning could be called the mark of Abel.” Ditto for the Tower of Babel, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Harrison Bergeron,” and Yertle the Turtle. We are programmed for mediocrity in our collective consciousness, lest we rock the boat.

Then Felix Baumgartner steps out of a capsule 24 miles above the earth, which looks every bit the big blue marble in space, setting the world record for the highest skydive ever. So what? Many will say that, pressurized suit and parachute or not, it was crazy. Or pointless. A lot of effort (and money) went into Red Bull Stratos, and it’s not like they were curing cancer.

It can’t just be for the fame. Baumgartner risked too much. It’s not about raising the bar for future skydiving attempts or other daredevil stunts, either. It’s about pushing the boundaries of what we believe humans are capable, perhaps rejecting outright the idea of limitations. He’s Neo in The Matrix. No. Actually, he’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Baumgartner steps out on the platform, and delivers a short speech, like Armstrong’s “One Small Step” soliloquy,  which could become his epitaph in the next few minutes. “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are,” he says, simply. “I’m going home now.”

He could fly higher, and it was time to go home. He gave one last long look across the sky, across that magnificent silver land where he had learned so much.

“I’m ready,” he said at last.

– Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

At mission control in Roswell, New Mexico, his mentor, USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger, tells him, “Start the cameras, and our guardian angel will take care of you.”

Felix Baumgartner. Photograph: Getty Images

Baumgartner drops into the abyss. In the thin atmosphere he picks up speed at an incredible rate, hitting 400 mph less than 20 seconds into his freefall. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken calculus, and I never did study physics, but it boggles the mind trying to imagine the forces exerted on his body. A few seconds more and he punches a hole in the air at the speed of sound, the first human to do so outside of a vehicle, 65 years to the day since Chuck Yeager roared through that perceived barrier in his Bell X-1. Moments later, Baumgartner is seen tumbling end over end, and his breathing accelerates.

Careful as he was, working at the very peak of his ability, he lost control at high speed.

– Richard Bach

Watching the feed of his descent, at that moment you figure well, that’s it. He’s a dead man. Or at least every bone in his body is broken. No. After a few tense moments, despite his speed and lack of an atmosphere palpable enough to help him get his bearings, he regains control, and rights himself into an elegant, graceful swan dive. Watching the video over and over again, that’s where I lose it, every time, because in that moment he hasn’t  just dared to try; He has achieved perfection. He has found heaven.

Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect… You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.

– Richard Bach

Baumgartner’s achievement is perfect, not just for the records he set, but for the venue in which it was accomplished. From his vantage point in the heavens, the everyday and commonplace fade, and the big picture emerges. Of how much more there is than squabbling and scraping for survival. Of how much more we are capable.

How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!

– Richard Bach


Photo: Russell Munson


Michael Singman-Aste
Postdiluvian Photo

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4 responses to “The Man Who Fell to Earth”

  1. LJV says:


  2. LJV says:

    And you made me see the beauty.

  3. Al Wright says:

    Interesting comparison, Michael. I hadn’t thought of Jonathan Seagull in years (or Illusions, which used to be one of my favorite books). Thanks!

  4. lori Singman says:

    Michael – This was a fabulous blog. Thanks for not only writing it, but for sending it to me. I am so proud of you! Love, Mom

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