28 DECEMBER 2002, Page 36

The higher the fewer

Anthony Smith

THE MAN WHO TOUCHED THE SKY by Johnny Acton Hodder, £14.99, pp. 250, ISBN 0340819324 What to do if you plan a book whose essence is a single parachute drop? And what to do if, apparently, that particular parachutist was not deeply committed to the book? Similarly, if your two previous books have been Soup and Mushroom, and if your career has involved theology, minicab-driving, obituary writing, and founding a chain of soup bars, how can you detail the physics and technology embodied in such a subject as high-altitude parachuting? This actual drop was no casual tumble from the skies, being the highest ever such descent, starting at 102,000 feet above the earth and landing safely in New Mexico on 16 August 1960. No one has ever dropped SO far in all the years since then, and only Joseph W. Kittinger has ever fallen for 4 minutes and 38 seconds before the opening of his parachute.

Surprisingly, bearing everything in mind, such as the book's single highlight and the author's earlier experience with soup rather than the stratosphere, it is an extremely worthy production. It digs deeply , into the precursors of that solitary venture. It tells well of the hideously alien world a mere 19 miles above our heads. And it is certainly exciting about the jump itself, the frightening event forming the book's crucial ingredient.

Faced with the wish to turn one episode into a couple of hundred pages, Johnny Acton does not so much pad his book as start it from the earliest beginnings that he could find. He therefore describes the original thoughts, beliefs and dogmas about our planet's existence. Long before science emerged in fledgling form there was all manner of conjecture about our atmosphere, its constitution, its creation.

Acton is no less reverential about these initial concepts than he is about the novel thinking which, in time, formed the basis of modern astronomy. From Copernicus, Brahe and Galileo he then moves, no less smoothly, to the experimentation and discovery that paved the way for flights into space, such as Kittinger's ascent beneath a balloon to our atmospheric edge. Acton even ends his book with an epilogue about the Pueblos of New Mexico, about their belief of worlds within worlds, and how Kittinger's heroic enterprise may be seen as the first step towards a life in some other place.

Occasionally inaccuracy can get the better of this author. He says, for example, that a lack of heating caused Kittinger's right hand to become 'a large block of ice'. However cold, it did not do that. He is not very good about the basics of helium, and there was surely never a plane called a 'Piper Club'. To make a good soup it is possibly necessary to mix several ingredients, each adding to the flavour. I personally could have done without the many ancient hypotheses, and can only sense their irrelevance, but Acton's approach is a little bit of everything. The result is undoubtedly worthy, a unique blend, and an extraordinary successor to Soup and Mushroom.