Waking in the night or staring deep into the horizon, we all generate a spark of genius, even if it’s merely the flash of an idea. We possess the power of creativity far greater than ourselves, whether artistic or systemic – it’s there. This usually leaves our logical, day-to-day, pragmatic-selves to keep us small – dismissing great ideas as quick as they form. We forget all ideas start small. It’s just a microscopic synapse. To that, I say, no more remaining ‘day-to-day small’.
As the late, great Walt Disney once said, “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”
Walt Disney is an iconic example of taking a big idea from its smallest roots, and building a place of dreams filled with castles and spilling over with imagination.
Just as Walt Disney, Felix Baumgartner, or numerous other people we perceive as mightier than men all get grouped together as larger-than-life. We’re drawn to these “heros'” adventures, triumphs, and easily root for their underdog successes. It gives us a sense of empowerment through projection, and the usual ‘I can do that’ mindset… for a moment. That’s exactly where we stop, dismissing our ideas, and falling back into our day-to-day mindset. Magic and superheroes may not be real, but our imagination still creates the unthinkable. Be irrational, and chase the unthinkable.
In January of this year, I had the pleasure of a VIP invite to the National Air Force Museum for the Red Bull Stratos release party and exhibit opening. The Red Bull Stratos project was a massive undertaking that involved years of development, a highly skilled team, and a wild, almost unthinkable idea – freefall from space. They brought together a large collective of the US Air Force’s talents and technology, some of the best pioneers in this field of expertise, equipment that didn’t exist before this effort, an energy drink brand famous for their winged bovine logo, a master parachutist; Felix Baumgartner, and his vision of freefalling from space to set a new world record. Irrational and unthinkable, indeed.
The project’s undertaking started in 2005, and was, in all respects, a piece of history in the making. It was far more than a world record freefall. The live-feed broadcast alone, crashed YouTube, a feat in it of itself, and set an internet traffic record. The military’s vacuum chamber tests ran at three times the highest ever recorded to insure the safety of Felix. Beyond that, was a record for longest single step of any human, of course, the Fastest Freefall at 843.6 mph / Mach 1.25, and was the catalyst to create the first space suit made for a non-government space program. This truncated list of accolades is impressive to say the least.
The event’s panel consisted of Joe Kittinger (Flight Operations and Safety, Capcom I); Art Thompson (Technical Project Dir.), and Jonathan Clark, M.D (Medical Dir.). Their recounting of the hours, progress, developments, and history, predating the Red Bull project, in the 1960’s was powerful. Joe Kittinger, of Kettering, OH, was in the United States Air Force in the 1960’s when he and his fellow team proposed testing at high altitude to develop a mid-air ejection system that was stable, kept the pilots from spinning, and helped to better understand the effects on the body at the low temperatures and pressures pilots were experiencing at the heights aircrafts were reaching at the time. All of these factors were killing Airmen when emergencies happened mid-air, and they needed a safe means down to the ground. Joe was the first man to set the previous freefall record, and nearly lost his life during one test when a cable wrapped around his throat and he began spinning uncontrollably at an estimated 120rpm, enough g-force to kill a pilot in seconds, not to mention, adding in the low temperatures and atmospheric pressure he was experiencing. These real life situations fueled Joe’s desire to save his fellow pilots. He did all this under his own initiative on the military’s watch making $3/hr. The USAF was not in favor of the project, but Joe’s persistence to continue is why he and his team are credited with much of the success in this area of engineering and medical knowledge for high altitude situations. His ideas and vision were bigger than himself, and to his advancements he has saved many lives.
Fast forward to 2005:
3 AM, Felix Baumgartner (master parachutist) calls Art Thompson.
Felix: “Art, I have an idea to set a world record freefall.”
Art: “Do you know what time it is here?”
Felix: “I really believe this is possible!”
Art: “Felix, let’s talk about this in the morning.”
The Red Bull Stratos project would later go on to be worldwide phenomenon of ‘unreachable records’, and it all started with a wild idea, and… the first action of a call.
The evening showcased the stunning exhibit, and overall it was awe inspiring. Grasping the magnitude of a their efforts and countless minute steps to achieve success, all while the world watched, put place to how true greatness was nurtured and developed from a vision. But, for me the standout moment that evening happened afterward, and it had almost nothing to do with anything presented. So small, I may have been the only one to hear it.
After the program ended, the panel was gracious enough to do an autograph session, talk with the audience, and be part of a ‘meet and greet’. While talking with Art Thompson, a very articulate and genuine man, I mentioned, a particularly poignant moment for me during the presentation when he told of his first call from Felix regarding a ‘new idea’. I couldn’t help but think of the quote from Walt Disney -“…it all began with a mouse”. Explaining to him how well it paralleled the team’s collective story, taking a simple idea, and having it expand into years of passionate work around one goal. Finally, to succeed in front of the world’s watchful eyes seemingly all at once. He chuckled, and glanced up to me as he continued signing autographs. A chuckle still in his voice, he began, “Years ago, when I was a young boy my father was an HVAC technician”. Art helped his father during the summers when he was on break from school. During one particularly hot day at the age of 10, he recalls them finishing up working on a gentleman’s A/C condenser that needed repair. The gentleman asked him if he would like to see a train he’d created in his backyard. As any young boy would, he jumped at the chance. Art and his father, both excited, were led by the gentleman around the side of the house to the backyard. There it was – a train large enough to ride. The man jumped on to the train’s engine, Art followed suit, jumping on his lap to take a ride around. Art said he would never forget that day.
That man was Walt Disney.
Both the “The Happiest Place on Earth” and free-falling from space were achieved by small, mortal men, but it’s their desires to achieve greatness through their ideas that have made them ‘immortal’. We must not forget how small they really are; just like us.
[Standing 120k+ feet above the earth, prior to his longest step]
“Sometimes you have to be up really high to see how small you are” – Felix Baumgartner
It’s up to us not to stop at ‘just an idea’.