It took four minutes and 20 seconds for Felix Baumgartner to fall 24 miles from the stratosphere to Earth. But in the hours since, one of those seconds has loomed especially large in the world's imagination: That's the one second it took Baumgartner to look down at the curvature of the planet below him, lean out of his capsule and let go.
In that second, Baumgartner became a superhero.
Adrenaline junkies weren't the only ones who marveled as the Austrian daredevil broke the world record for the highest and fastest sky dive, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier without the assistance of a craft. Scientists and engineers considered the implications of the jump. Internet jokesters went to work creating memes and parody Twitter accounts.
Baumgartner's jump proved that science — space, especially — is cool again. August gave us the dramatic Mars landing of the Curiosity Rover, complete with its own handsome hero: Bobak Ferdowi, the mission control "Mohawk Guy" who captured hearts and minds with his eccentric style and informative science tweets. Now we have Baumgartner, with his equally chiseled features and even more attractive bravery in the face of danger.
Baumgartner has done more for science than make it seem dangerously sexy. He and his team, sponsored by the energy drink company Red Bull, also have contributed technology and information that will be used in future commercial spaceflight.
Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and a former NASA astronaut on three Space Shuttle missions, says the team that developed Baumgartner's suit is working with companies that are building suborbital and orbital vehicles. Lopez-Alegria says people will be able to go on ballooning adventures to the edge of space, like Baumgartner — but they'll remain in their spacecraft.
"I don't know how far those companies are away from flying, but the technology is pretty well understood. ... We're on the order of one or two years, not decades," he said.
As for Lopez-Alegria's reaction to the jump, he found it "thrilling."
"When they opened the hatch, and they had that view, as he was about to prepare ... ," he said, "the people got a chance to see that view, and I think that's pretty enticing for commercial space travel."