Monkeys, dogs, mice and men were sent into orbit, and now we’re spending trillions on a project to reach Mars. Yet we don’t even know how to live properly on Earth, writes Andrew E. Hall.
Sometimes you have to get up really high to see how small you are … I’m going home now.
– “Fearless” Felix Baumgartner
I WAS in a hotel in Singapore once – my room was on the 20th floor and had one of those windows that enabled guests not only to look out, but straight down as well.
I approached this viewing portal in the way a cat burglar approaches someone else’s silverware … slowly, carefully, a little nervous, ready to run like hell.
As I summoned the courage to look down, my feet started to tingle and I felt a bit weird. I don’t like heights.
On October 14th 2012 (does anyone remember?) 43-year-old Austrian, Felix Baumgartner – or Fearless Felix as he was fondly known – ascended in a pressurised capsule dangling from a 55-storey helium balloon (made from a material that weighs 10 times less than your average plastic bag) to a height of 39.04km (or 128,100 feet) into the stratosphere, got out of his capsule, and jumped.
I wondered at the time if his feet were tingling.
One small concern that he and his Stratos Project team had to consider was taking great care upon exiting his capsule lest he tear his suit. If this had happened a rapid depressurisation would take place that would lead to a thing called “ebullism”, whereby all the gases normally dissolved in the blood would come out of solution
… very nasty indeed – a process that has been likened to one’s bodily fluids boiling, but really isn’t.
And that’s just one in a list of conditions that would have left Fearless a messy smear on the ground in Roswell, New Mexico – appropriately near where the alleged crash of an alien spacecraft took place in 1947.
How do we know about these things?
Because we’ve sent animals to great heights to find out how bad things can get.
People die in droves every year from some of these known effects – which include hypoxia and hypocapnia – while attempting to climb Mount Everest, which is a mere 8,848 metres.
Fearless was careful upon exiting his life preserver, although what happened after he uttered the immortal words that stand first in this piece, I considered somewhat careless, reckless even. The mother of all plummets.
He reached a velocity of 1,342km/h – well over the speed of sound – and then began to spin uncontrollably.
Now, any of you who have overdone it big time on the grog and thought it a good idea to have a little lay down will have experienced something of what Fearless was going through.
I was zipped into a sleeping bag in Spain once when this unpleasant sensation occurred, and could do nothing but bring up my dinner into the hood of my brother’s sleeping bag … he wasn’t happy.
But apart from feeling very queasy, Fearless was faced with the very real possibility that his blood supply would be involved in a centrifugal crisis; that he might pass out (like I did in Spain before my brother started punching me). Splat.
My heart was in my mouth as I watched (purportedly live, but actually on a 20-second delay in case of a “tragic accident”), my feet were tingling like crazy … Fearless got his spinout under control. Whew.
Then his helmet visor fogged up and he couldn’t see anything. Hell’s bells Fearless!
He deployed his chute before the planned time and made a picture perfect landing in the desert. I was jumping for joy (but not too high).
After seven years of preparation Fearless Felix had broken the record for the highest leap ever made by a human, became the first human to break the speed of sound without the assistance of an aircraft, but fell short of the mark for the longest freefall because of his visor fog-up. That record is still held by Fearless’ mentor, Joe Kittinger, who leapt from 102,000-odd feet in 1960.
“Let me tell you – when I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble. You don’t think about breaking records anymore, you don’t think about gaining scientific data – the only thing that you want is to come back alive,” he said afterwards at a media conference.
Why do people like Fearless do such things? Why do people like me get excited about it?
Maybe it’s got something to do with what James Dean once said: “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”
Sir Edmund Hillary – the first person acknowledged to have summited Mount Everest – provided this sparse explanation for why he did it: “Because it’s there”.
We humans are funny things.
And now Virgin’s Richard Branson is contemplating mounting another project to replicate Fearless’ feat … from 400,000 feet. Who is the nut job crazy enough to make that leap?
“It sounds like kind of a joke because it looks like he wants to use our positive momentum and gain publicity on his side and that is kind of lame,” Fearless said, and added that the idea of someone leaping from 400,000ft was “completely insane”.
Motivation aside, part of the reason we are able to pull off such stunts, including space travel, is that we have some furry relatives that have selflessly gone before us in the name of our science, and our selfishness.
Monkeys in Spaaaaace … and other hapless creatures.
November 2012 marks the 55th anniversary of a pooch named Laika, who was the first animal ever to go into orbit (at an altitude of around 3,220km). The whole world held its breath as Laika went round and round. But the Soviets had not figured out how to bring Laika back to Earth.
It must have been very lonely up there for one of “man’s best friends” (an odd epithet under the circumstances), and the world heaved a collective sigh of sadness as the batteries on her life support system ran down.
The dog the American media nicknamed Muttnik was aboard the 508kg Sputnik II and was outfitted with scientific gauges, life-support systems, and padded walls. Laika was supported inside the satellite by a harness that allowed some movement and access to food and water (for all that was worth, given it was a suicide mission).
Electrodes transmitted vital signs including heartbeat, blood pressure and breathing rate. Laika was cremated when Sputnik II fell into Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.
Shooting animals off in rockets to see what would happen to them began in the 1940s.
The first ever monkey astronaut was Albert, a rhesus monkey who, on June 11, 1948, rode to over 63km on a V2 rocket – which was originally designed by the Germans to obliterate London during WWII.
Albert selfishly died of suffocation during the flight. He was followed by Albert II who survived the V2 flight, but died on impact on June 14, 1949 after a parachute failure – bummer.
Albert II became the first monkey in space, however, as his flight reached 134 km – beyond the so-called Kármán line of 100km taken to designate the beginning of space. Albert III … could these research people not have been more original in their naming of these creatures; sounds like the British royal family … died at 10.7km in an explosion of his V2 – presumably the rocket scientists had neglected to remove the warhead. Albert IV (dear oh dear) on the last monkey V2 flight died on impact after another parachute failure.
Lucky for Fearless Felix parachute technology has come a long way since those days.
All in all there were six Alberts, the sixth of whom actually survived his flight, but died – along with a number of rodent friends who travelled with him – of heat-stroke two hours after landing in the desert because the recovery crew were a bit tardy in living up to their job description.
It is unsure whether the researchers got much out of the Alberts in terms of biological data given their near zero survival rate.
Except, perhaps, that shooting people and other creatures off in rockets (especially the V2) was a pretty dangerous business.
Things got a bit better for our primate friends when the Jupiter rocket programme arrived in the late 1950s in the U.S. Able and Baker (the first two letters in the phonetic alphabet … pathetic) were sent aloft on May 28, 1959 and travelled at more than 16,000km/h, endured 38g of gravitational force, and, more importantly, returned to Earth intact.
Unfortunately for Able, during an operation to remove an infected electrode a couple of days after his return, the anesthetist messed up and killed him. He was stuffed and mounted in his space suit, and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum.
Baker died in 1984 at the ripe old age of 27 … but then again, so did Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse – all of whom could reasonably be accused of also being pioneer space cadets.
In all, four nations have sent monkeys into space (or as near as they could get to it): United States; Soviet Union/Russia; France; and, of all places, Argentina. On the whole things didn’t go terribly well for these front-liners of occupied rocketry.
Lapik and Multik were the last space monkeys – they flew aboard the Russian Bion 11 mission from December 24, 1996, to January 7, 1997. Multik died while anesthetised for biopsy sampling on January 8. Lapik almost died during the identical procedure.
Echoes of poor old Able.
According to the research, and strangely, no one thought to follow up on the effects of anesthesia on sentient beings immediately following space flight … despite considerable evidence that it probably isn’t good for you. Either that or anesthetists are just hopeless in Russia and the U.S. and you shouldn’t go there for an operation.
But thanks to the sacrifices of these, and many, many more experimental subjects we humans have a pretty solid knowledge of the effects extreme altitude can have on our bodies. I just wonder if anyone thought to give Jane Goodall – a world authority on primates and their communication patterns – a call so she could explain to the space monkeys exactly what they were in for, and ask them if they were up for it. Probably not.
You might think that, given his exploits and accomplishments, Fearless Felix would be a fan of things being shot off into space … nope.
He has branded NASA’s efforts to discover whether there was once life on Mars a waste of money.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph two weeks after his historic plummet he said: “A lot of guys they are talking about landing on Mars … because [they say] it is so important to land on Mars because we would learn a lot more about our planet here, our Earth, by going to Mars. Which actually makes no sense to me because we know a lot about Earth and we still treat our planet, which is very fragile, in a really bad way.
“So I think we should perhaps spend all the money [which is] going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don’t think it makes sense.”
And all the money spent on the Stratos Project does?
Of course it does – it was an extraordinary promotion, watched “live” by an estimated seven million people, for an Austrian energy drink company.
But, as Helen Keller – American author, political activist, and lecturer – who was also the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, said: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.”
Another daring adventure that also took place in 2012 was almost a mirror image of the Fearless Felix caper – a dive to the deepest point on Earth by a manned submarine.
Please note: there was no wastage of animal life involved in this one, although I’m sure someone somewhere has put a monkey in a hyperbaric chamber to gauge the effects of extreme pressure as opposed to extreme lack of pressure.
On March 26th James Cameron – who is better known for making films like Avatar and Titanic – squeezed into a radical new type of submarine and plunged, as opposed to plummeted, to a depth of 11km.
According to the National Geographic Society: “Engineered to sink upright and spinning, like a bullet fired straight into the Mariana Trench, the sub can descend about 150 metres a minute – ‘amazingly fast’, in the words of Robert Stern, a marine geologist at the University of Texas at Dallas.”
It could be argued that 2012 was the year of spin – especially if you take into account that there was a United States presidential election going on as well.
And what did “Geronimo” James Cameron find when he got to the bottom of Challenger Deep? Not much – it’s an environment that’s about as friendly to living organisms as space …
But he boldly went where no man had gone before.
He and Fearless Felix took huge risks to achieve a dream; they behaved like free spirits in the presence of fate.
They inspired people like me whose great adventure – apart from driving on Bali – lies in the written word, because when I start something like this I never know where it’s going until I get there.
They inspired the editor of this magazine and his young daughter whenever they step down from something higher to say together, “I’m going home now”.
We know where home is. We just don’t really know how to treat it and the other creatures that live upon it with us.
Would that they might teach us as much as we like to think we can teach them.