Long, Lonely, Liminal

I don't know where I first saw the photographs. I don't remember if it was in a book, or a magazine, or maybe even online. I'm pretty sure I saw the still photographs before the film of the event, though.

Whatever the case may be, I know I was awestruck when I first saw those photographs--I'm talking, of course, of these photographs, the photographs taken by the automatic camera in Joseph Kittinger's Excelsior III gondola as he jumped out of it 30 kilometers (19 miles) above the Earth in 1960. They're unquestionably striking, and I agree with everything Ben Cosgrove said on the LIFE magazine site (where they know quite a bit about awesome retro aerospace photos, I'd imagine) about why that's the case, but for me, the two most immediate sensations when I saw those photographs were of liminality and fragility.

Of course, I didn't know the word "liminality" at the time, because I didn't learn it until last fall when I took Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, but I knew the concept it describes--a state of being in-between two realms that isn't fully part of either one and holds danger and magic power--from literature and experience. (As Rod Serling so aptly put it: "...the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition... between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge... the dimension of imagination... an area which we call... The Twilight Zone.")

Those photographs show a liminal realm--that's not the surface of the Earth, or the area where we're used to seeing airplanes and balloons fly, not with those clouds so far below, not with the black sky and the curvature of the Earth visible. But it's not the realm of shuttles and space stations, either--when one exits a vehicle in orbit, one floats along with it, falling endlessly AROUND the Earth in an orbit of one's own, one doesn't suddenly drop TOWARDS the Earth as we see the figure in these photographs doing. We know air and we know space, but this place, 30 kilometers up, doesn't quite seem to be either one--it's liminal.

That's true scientifically as well as poetically--the part of the atmosphere we normally think of, the part we breathe, the part where most of our weather happens, the part we're in anywhere we go on the surface of Earth from the Dead Sea to the summit of Everest, is just the very lowest layer of the atmosphere, the troposphere. The troposphere ends about 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9.3 miles) up, depending on local conditions, but the boundary of space is much higher--one hundred kilometers or sixty-two miles up. In-between are the layers of the upper atmosphere-- the stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere-- where gas molecules become progressively farther and farther apart and air pressure progressively less and less.

In our everyday lives, most of us never go any higher than the lower stratosphere--the normal, 12-15 km altitude of commercial jets. So if the area beyond seems strange and unusual, and if excited reporters trip up and call it space, perhaps we can understand why--it's a liminal realm, betwixt and between, as the terms "near-space" and "edge of space" reflect. At the point those photographs were taken, 30 kilometers above sea level, Captain Kittinger was in the middle part of the stratosphere, above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere and in a pretty good vacuum. But he was only about a third of the way to space.

And that's where the other emotion comes from, the sense of great fragility. The photographs show a lonely human in this strange environment that could so easily kill him, falling from this great height and getting smaller and smaller against the clouds. Kittinger was wearing a pressure suit, but from the angle of the camera it's not visible under the layers of cold-weather gear he wore over it. Instead, our first impression is that his only protection in this hostile area is a crash helmet, a flight jacket, and thick pants held down by red duct tape, with a toolbox inexplicably taped to his bottom--in short, he looks woefully underdressed for the situation at hand. In the film of the jump, we can see his arms and legs flailing, like an upturned turtle, and we feel a sharp twinge of sympathy at the sight of a fellow human alone against the elements. A small, fragile man, tumbling through a vast and dangerous ocean of sky.

So, wherever I first saw the Excelsior photographs, I know what my reaction to them was. I'm fairly sure that I first heard of the Excelsior program in the June 2007 issue of Popular Science magazine, in which the article "High Dive" described several contemporary groups planning skydives from even higher up, but I don't know if that article included those pictures. (And because I always buy Popular Science in airport bookstores to read on planes, I know I probably read that article while en route to Washington DC for my 8th grade trip in late May of that year.)

Of course, I found it interesting, but none of the projects really seemed to be very far along, and they all sounded a little crazy anyhow, so I filed it away in my mind and went on with my life. And over the next few years, there were some news stories about those teams and the progress they were making, and I saw photos online of a guy from the team that was now the front-runner doing test jumps in his spacesuit, but I didn't really have much context about the topic in general. Not until another trip to Washington and another magazine article.

One day early in my internship in DC this summer was brightened by receiving the July 2012 issue of Air and Space Smithsonian magazine, thoughtfully forwarded to me by my parents. White text on the magazine's front cover asked the question: "CAN A HUMAN BODY SURVIVE MACH 1?", and, being a superhero fan, I eagerly read the accompanying article, "The 120,000 Foot Leap", to find the answer.

That answer, according to the article, was "Maybe." The question was relevant because that front-runner team, Red Bull Stratos, were gearing up to make their attempt to jump from an even higher altitude than Kittinger had--at least 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) higher, as the title implied. The person who would be actually jumping from their balloon gondola was Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner, the guy I'd seen in the spacesuit online, and it was a very real possibility that during his descent, he'd fall faster than the speed of sound. Since nobody had ever done this before, doctors and spacesuit designers were interested in knowing what would happen to a human body traveling at supersonic speeds without a vehicle, protected only by a spacesuit. As the blurb on the magazine's Table of Contents page put it: "Can he break the sound barrier without breaking his neck?"

That wasn't the only danger, I learned--two previous challengers to the record, American Nicholas Piantanida and Soviet Peter Dolgov, had been killed after problems with their suits had exposed their bodies to the near-vacuum environment. And Kittinger himself had had a close shave on his first Excelsior flight, when his parachute had malfunctioned, wrapped around his neck, and caused him to spin uncontrollably, so fast that he blacked out. (Fortunately, he had a spare that opened automatically.)

The Stratos team was hoping to avoid any similar disasters-- they had an expert medical team that included former NASA Flight Surgeon Dr. Jonathan Clark, a specially designed spacesuit, and now-Colonel Kittinger (who was still alive) serving as Mr. Baumgartner's mentor and the only one he'd talk to during his flight. But nothing could completely eliminate the unknowns and uncertainties...

Thus suitably briefed on the historical and scientific background of this project, I made a note to follow their progress and watch the final jump when it happened in a few months. (In an interesting twist, I recently learned that during my time in DC, CNN had filmed an interview with Kittinger and Baumgartner in the National Air and Space Museum's Space Race gallery. I had visited the museum the day before and the day after, and I was definitely in that gallery within 24 hours of them, but I didn't know it until months later. Near-space balloonists I almost met?)

So, a few months later, there I was, hunched over my laptop in my dorm room watching the mission unfold when I should have been studying art history. I don't suppose my personal experience of watching the ascent, jump and landing was much different from any of the other millions of people watching--there was a lot of gasping, finger-clasping, "Oh my god!" shouting, breath-holding, and finally, cheering. During the ascent, I had websites open in other tabs where I was discussing the events of the mission with my friends, but once the balloon got close to peak altitude, I made the live feed full-screen and didn't take my eyes off it.

I heard Mr. Baumgartner's accented comments as he performed the pre-jump preparations, and the pauses in-between underscored the seriousness of the moment. Under my breath, I started muttering the sorts of things I'd been saying to myself as I'd watched the Curiosity landing--variations on "good", "okay", and "c'mon" as various items on the checklist were resolved. I did this to calm my own nerves more than anything else--I could scarcely imagine how the man's own nerves were feeling, "fearless" though we'd heard he was. If the pauses and heavy breaths were any indication, he was at least thinking very carefully about each move.

But, precisely when it was most needed, there it was--a voice of reassurance and control. Online, one can see any number of informal reactions to videos and pictures of the Excelsior jumps, where commenters declare in profanity-laden enthusiasm what a stone-cold, butt-kicking, eats-a-bowl-of-nails-for-breakfast-without-any-milk tough guy Colonel Kittinger must have been to do such a thing, (only in language rather less polite than that) but what we saw here was something else. Definitely, there was no doubt that the white-haired old man in the round glasses that the control room cameras showed us was intensely focused and fully serious, a test pilot through and through.

His manner was not just calm, though, but avuncular, or in fifty-cent words, like that of a kindly uncle. He prodded Mr. Baumgartner gently through the steps, responding proudly with "attaboy, that's good" and "there you go" as they were completed--sounding as if he were instructing the younger man in how to tie his shoes or ride a bike without training wheels, or something similarly antithetical to free-falling from the stratosphere. "Keep your head down." He said, as Baumgartner brought himself to a standing position, as if it had just been a kid ducking under a fence, as if the event was the most normal thing in the world. "Start the cameras, and our guardian angel will take care of you."

I don't know what I can possibly say about what happened next that hasn't been said already, and probably said better, by someone else. Those who watched live will surely never forget it, and for those who did not, at least a million different videos of the jump are easily available. Mr. Baumgartner gave a small speech, stepped out of his capsule, and fell for four minutes and twenty seconds, breaking the sound barrier (and thus definitively answering the question asked by the Air and Space article), before opening his parachute, floating safely down to Earth, and landing on his feet. And it was awesome.

Of course the websites I visit were abuzz after the landing. Everyone was excitedly sharing their own reactions and screenshots (mine were pretty good, if I do say so myself). We had a lot to talk about--"That was SOOOOOO cool!", "I would have been screaming all the way down", "Did you see how happy his mom was when he landed?", "Somebody go tell Usain Bolt he's not the fastest man alive anymore!"--but, being space history fans, a lot of them had also been impressed by Colonel Kittinger's performance as capsule communicator. For a man in his eighties to put so much effort into helping another man break his records, to do such an excellent job of it, and then to remark with grandfatherly pride, "I couldn't have done it any better myself"--that took a remarkable human being indeed. He really seems, I thought, like such a cool old guy.

And that was when I realized that the programs he'd taken part in were an era of space history that I didn't know very much about at all. Like I said back in July, there are few thoughts that send me into a research frenzy quicker than the realization that, "OMG there's something cool in history that I don't know anything about!" I spent my free time in the next few weeks reading all of the information I could find about the 1950s Manhigh and Excelsior programs, and the related experimental work that had been undertaken in the same era.

We celebrate Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard and their contemporaries rightfully, because they did what no other humans had ever done before--pass beyond our Earth's atmosphere into outer space. But, as Sir Isaac Newton said, when we see farther than others, it is because we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. The first steps into space were a progression of scale from the earlier work that had been done in getting airplanes to fly higher and faster, and in determining if humans and equipment could survive the conditions found in space. It was in the liminal zone of the stratosphere that the emergency and spacesuits that protected our first travelers into true outer space were given some of their field-tests. And it was Gagarin and Shepard who put all of the technological advances together and broke on through to the other side.

I learned that a docu-drama based on some of these early tests had been released in 1956, called On the Threshold of Space, a phrase I thought summed up the era perfectly. The Latin root of our English term "liminality", līmen, literally means "a threshold". At Space Academy, our workbooks had lumped everything from Robert Goddard to the launch of Explorer 1 under the title "Early Days", even though that timespan covered three decades and incredible advances in technology. Now I feel safe in breaking it up a little more and describing the period from the end of World War II to when the Mercury and Vostok programs really got underway as the "Threshold Era".

I joked with my friends that there must have been subliminal messaging in the Stratos livestream to inspire such a sudden interest, but that it must have been flawed, because instead of obsessively thinking about wanting to buy the sponsor's product, I was obsessively thinking about the history of near-space ballooning, and putting books about it on my Christmas list! (I do notice their logo everywhere now though, so one never knows...) I'm a bit busy with finals now, but once they're over, and I'm home with those books, I can't wait to learn even more. When circumstances made it so that I was visiting my aunt's house on November 11th, the night the National Geographic documentary about the mission, Space Dive, premiered, I camped out with my brothers to watch on the big TV she has. Now, the other big aerospace buff in my family is my younger brother Peter, but where I like spaceships, experimental aircraft, old-school biplanes and other hopefully-non-lethal flying things, Peter is a fighter plane buff. Whenever I have questions about military aviation, he's the one I ask. But as we watched Space Dive, something very surprising happened: I was the one answering his questions about military aviation.

"Colonel Joe Kittinger? What service?" Peter asked me, after the narrator had introduced Kittinger on-screen.

"Air Force." I responded promptly, and pointed out a uniformed photo of him that appeared on a wall of photos a few minutes later.

Of course, I got really excited when the documentary got to talking about Project Excelsior. The narrator said something like "He took a balloon up 102,000 feet, and then... he jumped!"

"Did he have to jump?" Peter asked.

"Well, the purpose of the mission was to test the parachute and other bail-out gear to make sure people could safely eject from the SR-71 and other planes like that they were making, so yeah, he had to jump." I said.

"So he was a LAB RAT?"

"A test pilot."

The whole documentary was great (I only wish it had been around three summers ago when my group at Yale Summer Session was doing our presentation on the physics of air travel--the explanation of what causes a sonic boom would have been perfect to play), and I definitely gained a new sense of the hard work that had been involved. And, even if my brothers will call me sappy for it, I thought the scenes of Mr. Baumgartner talking with his mother about the dangers of the project were very heartwarming. But it was the project's Technical Director, Art Thompson, who really came off as the unsung hero of the mission to me, dealing with all of the immense technological challenges, company/office politics, and strong personalities involved--successfully!

It's always cool watching documentaries or reading books about news events I followed closely, because at the same time I'm watching, I'm reliving the experience I had watching it live, but with the benefit of information I didn't have at the time (every time I watch IMAX Hubble 3D, I still can't believe that final servicing mission was three whole years ago), and with Space Dive, it was especially surreal because the program aired only a month after the actual jump. The last image in Space Dive (I guess this is kind of a spoiler?) was Mr. Baumgartner, still in his suit, hugging his mentor after landing, and I found myself repeating my earlier thought, with a few modifications: Joe Kittinger really seems like a very cool, funny, nice old guy who's had an incredible life.