Just moments after I learned Edward Archbold had suddenly died after winning a roach-eating contest this weekend in Miami (the prize was a live $850 python), I heightened my next bout of self-imposed anxiety Tuesday to listen to the breathless play-by-play countdown of Felix Baumgarter’s attempt to skydive to earth from the brink of outer space.
Felix is a known daredevil, a 43-year-old Australian who battles claustrophobia but will “manage it” in his attempt to jump off a fragile balloon once it is 22 miles above the earth. Tuesday’s jump was finally aborted by high winds that the team, called Red Bull Stratos, deemed perilous, but late yesterday Baumgartner’s quest to become the first skydiver to break the sound barrier was tentatively set for Thursday in the high heavens over Roswell, N.M.—weather permitting.
Why is it some of us are fascinated by idiots? Word out of Miami last night was that Archbold, who collapsed on the sidewalk outside the reptile store that sponsored the crazy event, had been “the life of the party” just minutes before as he gorged himself on live roaches, worms and other squirming bugs. A YouTube tape of his bare-chested bravado has gone viral.
The live broadcast team promised listeners that they would congratulate the winner of the bug feast “as soon as he gets back from vomiting” but instead the champ was rushed to a nearby hospital and pronounced DOA by stunned emergency room workers. One theory is the sudden ingestion of many roaches may have trigged asthma, this due to the dust that occurs when the bugs shed their skins, but medical officials say autopsy reports won’t be available for a week or so.
So I eagerly flipped to an all-news station that revealed when our Australian daredevil goes from the atmosphere into the stratosphere – which is at 15 miles up -- in his astronaut-type suit, he is expected to reach a free-fall speed of Mach 1.1 (about 720 miles an hour).
In case you haven’t been following “Fearless Felix,” he’s been practicing this jump for five years and working out every detail with an army that now numbers over 100 engineers and technicians. The lead guy on the team is an 83-year-old retired Air Force colonel, Joe Kittinger, who holds the skydive record of 20 miles after he launched himself in similar fashion from 102,800 feet in 1960.
Mind you, “Colonel Joe” darn near croaked on a practice jump a year before setting the mark. He blacked out after his body started flipping madly, doing 120 revolutions per minute, but regained control and consciousness when his emergency chute automatically deployed. Kittinger thinks “Fearless Felix” has a good chance of becoming the greatest – and bravest – leaper of all time.
Other experts aren’t so sure. To get 22 miles above terra firma, Felix will ride a platform tethered by helium balloons on a rig – in itself – that is 55 stories high once in flight. When Baumgartner jumps, the temperature will be minus-70 degrees and, if a carefully-rehearsed “bunny hop” technique fails to work, trouble could come very quickly. Normally skydivers maneuver with their hands – at 23 miles up there is no air. Felix plans to go head first, which is to skydiving what “all in” is to poker.
That is why he’ll go so fast. As Baumgartner nears earth, he’ll go subsonic before slowing to “terminal velocity,” which is 120 miles an hour – but he will still descend very fast. The team figures the balloons – if no wind is blowing – will take 2-to-3 hours to reach the jump-off point but the fall – if all goes according to Hoyle – will last only 15 to 20 minutes. At Mach 1.1 --- are you kidding me? This is dumber than dipping snuff.
Once the Red Bull Stratos balloon reaches 120,000 feet – three times higher than a military jet can go – the skinny is that “Fearless Felix” will be supersonic – 720 miles an hour – for about 20 seconds. Once he gets to the stratosphere, the atmosphere will gradually slow him down so he’ll free fall for the next five minutes – at dazzling speed -- before hopefully pulling his chute open at 5,000 feet. Once the chute opens, it will take about 10 minutes before his feet hit the dirt but, remember, 115,000 feet will be free fall. Lordy, somebody play “Free Bird” real loud!
Nobody is quite sure what happens to the human body when it breaks the sound barrier. Jets are pressurized and Felix is keen on being the first expert. There’s a medical condition called “boiling blood” that makes everybody a little nervous and, if he gets battered during the fall or the massive G forces render him unconscious, “Roswell, We have a problem.”
If “Fearless Felix” is successful, he can claim he went the highest, the fastest, and is the first human to break the sound barrier without an airplane. If he is not successful, perhaps there will be a sign in the desert outside Roswell that reads, “Here lies Fearless Felix.” But everybody – including me – is pulling for the kook, the same way they did when he executed a perfect swan dive off the top of the Christ the Redeemer statue high above Rio de Janeiro one time.
The internet is agog with quickly-updated reports. One of the best was written by John Tierney of the New York Times who quoted Baumgartner, “I know the consequences if something goes wrong. And it crosses my mind – what if I am never going to see my family again? But I have learned to control my fear so that it doesn’t get in the way.”
“Fearless Felix” also told the writer he would have no problem stepping into space. “I’ll definitely want to step off,” he said … er, not mentioning any alternative once he’s 22 miles up. “With every foot I fall, I’ll be coming to a safer environment. I’m coming home.”
Well, I wish him better luck than that which befell “Roach-Eating Eddie.” Our skydiver promises his rare feat will enlighten science wizards and medical geniuses, and that may well be so, but – say? -- what happened to the $850 python? Archbold said he wanted to give it to a girl, but I’d have bet a steamboat roll of cash she would never have kissed him for it.