Sunday, October 14, 2012


Atta Boy

The word supersonic — beyond hearing — was coined in 1919 and described sound waves which were beyond the range of normal human hearing. A dog whistle is supersonic. In 1919, the idea of aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier was still a long way off.

But this is the 20th century we’re talking about, so not that far off. By 1934, supersonic meant exceeding the speed of sound. At sea level, this happens at 768 mph, and is known as Mach 1.

Chuck Yeager

The first supersonic flight was made on October 14th, 1947 by Chuck Yeager, and ushered in the space age. He achieved this feat in an experimental aircraft with two freshly broken ribs.

Today, exactly 65 years later, Brigadier General Chuck Yeager re-created his history-making flight in the same spot above the Mojave desert. He’s 89 years old. Think about that. 

Also Chuck Yeager

Today, by chance, another man sought to break the sound barrier not far away in Roswell, New Mexico. Felix Baumgartner leapt out of a balloon-borne capsule 24 miles above the earth and succeeded in making a running landing as if he’d jumped off his porch. On his way down, he achieved a speed of 833 mph, or Mach 1.24.

Both men pushed barriers beyond sound: they pushed past what was thought possible for human beings to accomplish or endure. As such, they reached for the symbolic, as opposed to the literal stars and became gods for a little while.

Icarus tried to fly and his ambition raised him too close to the sun, which melted the wax that held his wings together, and he came crashing down.

Icarus. Without wings or a spacesuit. 

He probably could not have imagined a man would say that “Flying is flying. You can’t add a lot to it.” But this is what the humble Chuck Yeager said about his achievement. Baumgartner was similarly circumspect when it came to describing his experience: travelling faster than the speed of sound “is hard to describe because you don’t feel it,” he said.

Yeager flew with the aid of a supersonic engine in a jet plane. Baumgartner did it with nothing but a spacesuit and a parachute. Neither actually flew — but that’s not the point.

Our imaginations did.

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