Joe Kittinger falls at the speed of sound, 16 August 1960.
Progress and catastrophe are the opposite faces of the same coin.
One thing that distinguishes the older Pieter Bruegel from his contemporaries was his hunch about cosmic distances and his uncanny intuition for what would become known as Newton’s second law of motion. Nothing survives in the painter’s hand to tell us what might have stimulated his farsighted and far-out speculations. But there are clues suggesting that most of what he grasped about inconceivable speeds and tremendous distances he carried away from Abraham Oertel, the gregarious scholar and cartographer Bruegel befriended at the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp, where they were members. A tip-off to their cozy connection is a perceptive but plainspoken portrait of the painter that Oertel offers in his Book of Friends. In those pages, he declares: “Our Bruegel paints many things that cannot be painted.” And then, in a tone shaded by the knowledge that friendship provides, he observed: “There is often more thinking than painting in his works.” With a very few sentences, Oertel makes transparent that Bruegel was becoming deeply speculative about the role art would play describing the new world order unveiled by the likes of Magellan and Copernicus, but as usual, there is more to his story.
Oertel, who Latinized his name to Ortelius—it’s what scholars did back then—is best thought of as something of an authority on how to visualize complex data sets circa the 16th century. In the wake of Magellan’s voyage to circumnavigate the globe in 1520, and the Copernican displacement of the earth from the center of the solar system 23 years later, Ortelius helped theology, astronomy, and navigation through their uneasy revisions by almost single-handedly advancing the discipline of geography. Antwerp had become home to star cartographers, but among them it was Ortelius who had seen what to do first; take all of the assorted maps, from assorted parts of the world, in their assorted scales, and redraw them in a consistent magnitude, binding them together to create his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the world’s first modern atlas. Of course, in the late 16th century the world was becoming a vastly different place and the need to understand the revised cosmic order and all the new continents was suddenly keen. Cartographers were swiftly lifted toward the status they enjoy today. Bruegel, along with other curious minds, wanted to know about the reshuffled cosmos, the dimensions of the real world, and his friend Ortelius would have been a handy and obliging font of information about many things that could not be painted.
If Ortelius was the key that unlocked Bruegel’s interest in the new cosmic expanse, it was in a painting from 1558 that he tried to convey it. He chose to re-interpret Icarus’s infamous plunge (a subject he had rendered earlier as an engraving), within the new reigning order, where the earth spins inside a vast heliocentric cosmos. In order to accomplish this, Bruegel had to depart from the traditional depiction of the fall. For a moment, think back to Johann Whilhelm Baur’s 1639 engraving of the same harrowing scene. Baur adopted the most conventional of settings for the event: in the noon sky a dazzling sun is in apogee as Icarus begins to tumble, his resistance to gravity has just given way to the frailty of wax. Icarus’s fall is the centerpiece of Baur’s picture, whereas it seems incidental in the Bruegel landscape. Bruegel stressed subordinate details from the myth, and lent large scenes of vita activa principal roles. All there is to be seen of Icarus in Bruegel’s version are flailing legs; splash down occurs—headfirst—at the painting’s lower right. The differences between Baur and Bruegel are notable; they represent Baur’s ignorance, or worse his importunate privileging of an off-the-rack iconography over the revelatory knowledge that had fascinated Bruegel more than 80 years earlier.
Rather than the usual noon hour for the fall of Icarus, Bruegel took the close of the day for his panorama. This decision permitted him the opportunity to construct a modern space-time continuum for his subject. Studying Bruegel’s picture, one would naturally suppose that Icarus drops into the ocean at a spot more or less directly beneath the point in the sky where the sun was positioned when his wings began to fail. Given that Icarus and the sun slip beneath the ocean at the same moment, it is with rough approximation that one can turn the clock backwards, and conclude that Icarus’s flying accident took place at mid-morning, or some six hours before sunset. As they say, the picture is beginning to paint itself. Icarus has fallen an immense distance, taking one-quarter of the day to complete. Bruegel nimbly adjusted the ancient myth and re-tasked the art of painting in order to express the magnitude by which his world had expanded; along the way, he insinuates a revolutionary sense of spatial depth.
“Our Bruegel paints many things that cannot be painted.” Correct, Ortelius. He painted things that could hardly have been comprehended. Certainly Bruegel could not have imagined the complex and punctilious coordinates between speed, space, and time that his picture implied. But to apply Sir Isaac Newton’s second law to Bruegel’s scene is to know that over six hours (looking past the obvious sub-zero temperatures and the absence of oxygen and gravity) Bruegel’s Icarus would have fallen 4,284 miles, attaining a terminal velocity of something like 714 miles per hour, exceeding the speed of sound. It would have been a long and indescribable fall. Or would it?
Triggering the creative license embedded in the myth-form, it is possible to construct a “plausible” account of what Icarus’s trip would have been like upon entering the uppermost region of earth’s atmosphere. At 85,000 feet, somewhere near the middle of the stratosphere—where there is virtually no air—Icarus would have broken the sound barrier. Passing through 50,000 feet toward the bottom of the stratosphere, there would have been enough air density to begin to slow his fall to something like 250 miles an hour. Inside the troposphere at 30,000 feet he would have felt a noticeably warmer atmosphere, and along his route, encountered the air resistance that would slow his fall to 200 miles per hour. At 20,000 feet, or four miles above the earth, the clouds would be approaching very quickly as his airspeed momentarily hovered just above 150 miles an hour. Downward from there, his speed begins a slight decline as his body creates more and more drag through ever-increasing air density. The inevitable end to his journey would come 37.5 seconds later.
This description of Icarus’s plunge is thanks to Joseph Kittinger, Jr. In 1960, four hundred and two years after Bruegel painted his picture, Kittinger took the final portion of Icarus’s trip. Having floated in the gondola Excelsior III for an hour and a half as it slowly made its ascent over the New Mexico desert, he reached an altitude of 102,800 feet, whereupon he stepped out the door into the darkness of space. He was in freefall—like Icarus—but for only four minutes and thirty-six seconds before he cheated death and opened his parachute. That was at about 17,500 feet, the altitude at which Icarus would have been plummeting 220 feet per second towards destiny. For the next eight minutes, Kittinger floated the rest of the way to earth.
While it may sound as if Kittinger was an Icarus re-enactor, he was not a stuntman but a United States Air Force test pilot, assigned to the Escape Section of the Aeromedical Laboratory of the USAF Wright Air Development Division. His jump from above 95 percent of earth’s atmosphere was an experiment designed to provide information about the potential use of parachutes for escape from a space capsule or high-altitude aircraft. At the time, no one knew whether humans could survive a jump from the edge of space, but Kittinger proved it could be done and along the way became the first human to exceed the speed of sound without benefit of an aircraft or space vehicle. With total success on this first jump from such an altitude, no one has thought to attempt a repeat performance. All of his records, from altitude to speed, still stand 50 years hence.
Feet to earth, Kittinger said that his landing zone, the barren New Mexico desert, looked to him as if it were Eden. What must have been feelings of exhilaration mixed with absolute relief are lifted beneath an apparent vision—the apparition of Paradise, after flirting with catastrophe? While his portrayal of accelerating towards Mach One can seem as pensive as a guru’s tale of revelation, he does not leave the impression that his adventure in space made him especially religious, as was the case for some of the astronauts—James Irwin, for instance, went out looking for Noah’s Ark after walking on the moon in 1971. To listen to Kittinger is to hear unambiguous human wonderment and insight into free falling beyond sound’s speed. But it is to also hear Icarus’s voice echoing, as knowledge feathers into myth.
“I fell face to earth for a little ways and I really had no sensation of falling. ... I turned over on my back about this time and I looked up and the balloon was racing into the heavens.” At ease 19 miles above earth, Kittinger rolls over onto his back—as if to lounge about—and witnesses his gondola slipping into a black sky pinpointed by pearl crumbs. With the specter of his silver balloon receding into outer space at a steeply increasing speed, his physiological awareness registered nothing but pure buoyancy. Though falling at the speed of sound, there was no sensation of descent, no sound, but rather the hushed quiet of flight. Plunging at breathtaking velocities, Kittinger felt aloft. Just as we can accept this acute impossibility as a reasoned portrayal of Kittinger’s experience, it can also infuse Icarus’s myth with the scale of reality Bruegel had sought. How to render such a paradox except as an upward fall?
Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558.
None other than Paul de Man contemplated the resonance of what he referred to as “the imaginative possibility of what could be called anupward fall,” but so too have theologians and physicists and poets, New Age prophets and drug addicts. The upward fall is embedded in and tangled between theology and physics and literature and mores. It exists along the rarified and outermost ring of relativism made legend by Milton’s Satan when he declared “Evil be thou my good.” Either I can repent, Satan reasoned—surrendering selfhood with free will immediately upon being cast out of Heaven—or I will create a relative goodness out of radical evil, which he very well did by doing ill, his sole delight. In this, we grant Satan courage—a morally neutral term—because someone can exhibit willful courage in an act of depravity, as we learned on 11 September 2001. Theupward fall is morally neutral, promising liberation regardless of how dark the calamity, allowing hope to be born within deepest despair; it exhumes goodness from the heart of evil.
The upward fall began as myth, was ultimately extended to knowledge, and finally arches back toward its origins. From de Man to the addict, theupward fall has had a long life deep within mythology. Once it became a powerful portrayal of the knowledge Joe Kittinger gathered passing through the stratosphere, it was ready to be returned to the myth of Icarus divulging the very sort of knowledge Bruegel most wanted to express. Hallucination, a mythical vision, poetry, the grasping of hope out of hopelessness, or Kittinger’s quick assembly of a nascent language to illuminate unprecedented experience? Why yes. Upward fall is an expression perpetually irresolvable, a thing that cannot be.
To conclude, I work backwards. The notion of the upward fall did not first rise to mind pondering Bruegel’s re-setting the Icarus myth, aligning it with legendary discoveries, or of Kittinger’s audacity, which temporarily recast science into mythic language. They are only supporting roles for another episode where we can only pray that it was indeed courage falling along the spine of fear.
The circumstances of this fall can be read about in the span of time it actually took to complete. He was a youngish man, dressed in black pants, dark tie, and French cuffed white shirt. The shirt is noticeably untucked and billowing; his jacket left behind in the apocalypse above the 101st floor. He is pointed head-down, arms at side, left leg momentarily wagging in the wildly flickering air currents that rush by him. In the heat above the 98th floor, it was asphyxiation—rather than immolation—that pressured him to take a decision. Over the course of the jump, his speed never reached more than 150 miles an hour. Such a temperate speed would not have provided blessed unconsciousness, but assured a fatal ending. He jumped alone, although there were those who leaped in pairs, even in groups. His fall would last no more than ten seconds.
In a handful of moments, intractable terror surrenders to unalterable hopelessness and the ten-second plunge is set in motion. As Bruegel before us, our turn at the quixotic has arrived; rendering what is beyond perception, much less understanding. With time to ponder the picture of this plummeting man, a different Dedalus rose to mind, the one who said, near the close of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Where before I heard Icarus in Kittinger’s tale of falling upwardly, Dedalus has now become the window into the heart of this young man, whose white French-cuffed shirt is flailing. This jump from the North Tower—sprung from a place abandoned by hope (otherwise why?)—traveled through an encounter with real experience nearer that of Kittinger than Icarus. If not myth, his experience surely did not survive as knowledge, but will forever soar at the upper reaches of acute relativism where Satan found his goodness too; where liberation can be assured without regard for how foul the tragedy. To believe that his ultimate fate located hope inside hopelessness, and his fear inspired courage, and that like Satan, he too found a qualified goodness within radical evil, is to hope for ourselves. What sort of paradoxical dream could that be, other than our own flight of imagination as we upwardly fall?