The United States named its space explorers “astronauts,” which means “star sailors” in Greek. The Russians named their space explorers “cosmonauts,” which means “universe sailors.” There is no name for a man who plunges to Earth from twenty-five miles in the air so Red Bull named Felix Baumgartner, the man they hired to do just that, “the fastest man alive.”
Which is technically true. During his record-breaking freefall Baumgartner reached a speed of 833.9 miles per hour. Only with the aid of machines have humans traveled faster.
For instance the space shuttle, which doesn’t achieve escape velocity, flies at 17,500 miles per hour. The Apollo Saturn V rockets blasted out of Earth orbit at 25,000 miles per hour.
At the height of his powers Superman could travel faster than the speed of light. Over 186,000 miles per second. Over 671,000,000 miles per hour.
Vladimir Komarov, the first man to die in a spacecraft, fell from orbit and hit the Earth at 125 miles per hour.
Baumgartner rode a specially designed balloon into the upper stratosphere. There, dressed in a cutting-edge pressure suit, he stepped onto a narrow ledge outside his capsule. To the eight million viewers watching live on YouTube, he said, “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are.”
Then he jumped.
Baumgartner disappears from the capsule-mounted camera within seconds. He adds speed quickly. This is because the air in the stratosphere is thin and produces less friction. Even so it takes him nearly five minutes to reach Earth. His chute deploys correctly, one mile above the ground, and he lands standing up.
The fastest man alive.
A few months later Baumgartner is convicted of battery for striking a Greek truck driver. He’s fined 1,500 Euros but avoids incarceration.