Today Felix Baumgartner rode a capsule into the sky, buoyed by a helium-filled balloon, up 25 miles into the very thin atmosphere, and then he stepped out and began the long, four-minute fall to earth, when he unfurled his parachute and stepped back onto solid ground. He was falling, for a time, at over 800 miles per hour in his little space suit, looking like someone out of "2001 A Space Odyssey." I'm not sure what we learn from such feats, even thinking of a man moving faster than the speed of sound, any more than people a century ago trying to figure out how to survive a leap over Niagara Falls. But learn we do, and we keep moving on, discovering new territory.
Others have tried such feats of altitude. A note came in today from the alumni people at St. Mary of the Plains College, where I used to teach, that an alumnus there, Nick Piantanida, made his own attempt in 1966, which ended in his death four months later. He had made other attempts, from early in life to this final dive, to challenge the gravitational field--not bad for a truck driver. You can read more about that 1966 attempt in the article linked above.
The real tragic stories, though, are the failure not of an individual, but of a people. I can't help shake the sense that it's just wrong to put a person to death for crimes they have committed. About 24 hours from now, the State of South Dakota will put Eric Roberts to death. I almost wrote "will kill Eric Roberts." Same thing? Sounds worse, doesn't it? Roberts is a convicted murder and rapist. He'll come to earth too, in his own way. His death will bring some closure to the families of his victims, perhaps. I hope so, because all South Dakotans share in the responsibility for what will now happen to Roberts.
Too bad these events are oddly linked in my thoughts; the triumph of Mr. Baumgartner is remarkable and inspiring, and his success is to be celebrated. Congratulations, Felix.