Monday, October 15, 2012

Extremely High Altitude Skydiving: Newfangled Space Tourism?

As Red Bull sponsored stuntman Felix Baumgartner successfully managed to fall faster than the speed of sound, will extremely high altitude skydiving become a space tourism staple in the near future?

By: Ringo Bones

For an Austrian whose day-job is a commercial helicopter pilot, Red Bull sponsored stuntman Felix Baumgartner’s successful attempt at falling faster than the speed of sound while also successfully performing the highest skydive to date from a balloon-born gondola floating 39 kilometers above the earth is no mean feat indeed. With mentoring from the former high altitude skydiving record holder Joseph W. Kittinger, Baumgartner managed to immortalize his name on the record books on Sunday, October 14, 2012 over the skies of Roswell, New Mexico as his descent peaked at a little over 1,700 kilometers an hour for a record-setting skydive. So will his stunt be the beginnings of the new sport of extremely high altitude skydiving as part of the fledging space tourism trend?

 Though preparations for Baumgartner’s record-breaking stunt was several years in the making – even as far back as 2005 – the attempt was scrubbed a few days before Sunday’s attempt due to the inclement weather over Roswell. And even though critics of his stunt question the lasting value of his “bravado”, Baumgartner’s survival gear that he used in his record-breaking feat can provide very valuable aerospace medicine data on bailing out form high-performance aircraft and spacecraft from extreme altitudes. Remember the Space Shuttle Columbia’s tragic reentry accident? NASA would in the near future start equipping their spacecrafts with escape systems and pressure suits modeled after the one Baumgartner used in his record breaking high altitude jump. So the benefits and potential commercial applications of Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking stunt could benefit more than extreme sports enthusiasts and space tourists.    

Even though there are still only a handful of people who had bailed out and made a parachute jump above the famed “Armstrong Line” – i.e. a region in the earth’s atmosphere above 63,000 feet where the prevailing atmospheric pressure is so low that water, and this means water in your blood, boils at room temperature – they had managed to blaze a trail that both inspired and guided Felix Baumgartner in his recent extremely high altitude skydiving and supersonic freefall attempt. Balloon flights had often spearheaded important developments in aerospace medicine. Among the outstanding was the November 11, 1935 balloon ascent of O.A. Anderson and A.W. Stevens, then sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Army Air Corps that reached an altitude of 72,395 feet; Though Anderson and Stevens could not have survived if they bailed out at that altitude because a working pressure suit that could work at such altitudes is yet to be invented.

On August 19, 1957, the then Major David G. Simons – a U.S. Air Force physician – ascended to an altitude of 101,516 feet in a sealed cabin gondola and remained at high altitude for 32 hours and 10 minutes. On August 16, 1960 then Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr. – who mentored Felix Baumgartner’s recent record breaking attempt – ascended to an altitude of 102,800 feet and bailed out, free falling some 6,000 feet before a small stabilization parachute opened at about 96,000 feet. At a level above 90,000 feet, Kittinger reached a peak speed of 614 miles per hour – just a few notches shy of falling supersonic. At 16,500 feet, Kittinger’s 28-foot parachute canopy opened for his final descent. Kittinger’s free fall had taken 4 minutes 38 seconds and his total elapsed time from bail-out to ground was 13 minutes and 45 seconds. Around the time of Major Simons’ and Captain Kittinger’s then record breaking jump, pressure suits and helmets that allowed them to survive their record breaking attempts as well as the automatic parachute-opening devices were already invented due to developments in aviation medicine and associated sciences during that time. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Remembering Neil Armstrong

Even though President Obama called him the hero of all time, will Neil Armstrong be the greatest astronaut who ever lived for the foreseeable future? 

By: Ringo Bones 
Given that NASA’s budget has been slashed so much that they can’t afford a manned mission to the Moon anytime soon, it looks like Neil Armstrong will serve as our greatest astronaut for awhile. Sadly, Neil Armstrong passed away back in Saturday, August 25, 2012, aged 82 after complications following heart surgery. And yet he will forever be remembered for uttering the iconic phrase: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind when he became the first man to walk on the Moon’s surface. 

It was 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong – serving as the commander of the Apollo 11 mission - became the first man to set foot on the Moon. At the time, he had the biggest audience ever to see any event. But what the TV watchers from all across the globe didn’t know then was how narrowly disaster had been averted during the landing six hours earlier. The flimsy Lunar Module named Eagle was being directed to touchdown by the craft’s computer / automatic pilot which, unseeing, aimed the craft straight into a rock-filled crater. With only seconds to spare, Armstrong seized control of the craft and piloted Eagle to a safe spot in a dramatic demonstration of the human role in space exploration. 

Once suited up and out on the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin quickly disproved fears that conditions on the Moon would interfere with their work. “I say the rocks are rather slippery.” Aldrin radioed back to Earth. “About to loose my balance in one direction but recovery is quite natural and very easy.” The low Lunar gravity – one sixth that of Earth  - turned out to be an advantage and the astronauts soon delighted television watchers with long, graceful leaps, made possible by their reduced body weight, as they carried out their serious scientific work. 

After spending 21 hours on the Moon with their mission accomplished, Armstrong and Aldrin blasted off on the upper half of the LEM to rendezvous with Michael Collins piloting the Earth-return vehicle, leaving behind two instruments, a heap of abandoned gear and a stainless steel plaque inscribed: “We came in peace for all mankind.” 

Before becoming an astronaut, Neil Armstrong flew 78 combat missions on an F-86 Saber during the Korean War. Then he went on to become a test pilot for NASA and even managed to fly one of the X-15 rocket planes before being accepted into the Apollo program. 

After the success of the Apollo mission, Armstrong more or less lived on quietly as a tenured professor at the Cincinnati University. And back in July 20, 2009 during the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, he and fellow astronauts, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were invited by President Obama to the White House. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Rockoons: A More Economical Way To Launch Payloads Into Space?

Given that it was successfully tested as far back as 1952, should private aerospace firms be considering using “rockoons” as an economical way to launch payloads into Earth orbit? 

By: Ringo Bones 

As far back as the end of World War II, every well-informed rocketeer / aerospace engineer knows that it takes 100-lb. of fuel to put 1-lb. of payload into Earth orbit. And rocket fuel didn’t get any cheaper since the years when the U.S. government desperately wants to send the first artificial satellite into orbit. Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st Century where it is now economically viable for privately-owned aerospace firms to play the role as contractors to send payloads to earth orbit – as into the International Space Station – in an economically viable manner. Does this mean that “aerospace contractors” should be considering a technique from the 1950s to “cheaply” launch payloads into Earth orbit via “rockoons” or balloon-born rockets? 

Back in the early 1950s where the U.S. government was very desperate to beat the then Soviet Union to be the first to launch the first artificial satellite, various payload launching techniques from the whimsical to the sublime, were considered. Among the many experimental rocket techniques tried by the scientists who worked at White Sands at the time was the adaptation of a proposal long discussed by rocket pioneers but never before tested. Dr. James A. Van Allen revived the idea and proposed for actually testing it. Dr. Van Allen proposed using a balloon to carry a rocket – or a rocket-type launch vehicle – into the thin upper atmosphere, and launching the missile from there. A rocket so fired would be spared the difficult flight through the dense part of the atmosphere, and would therefore achieve a much greater altitude. Dr. Van Allen assigned the name “rockoon” to this device.

Then in 1952, a test launch was performed that performed extremely well and scaled-up rockets up to 13 feet long were launched in this fashion. In fact it was so successful that for a time scientists seriously considered using balloons to carry large three-stage rockets aloft for the purpose of putting a satellite into orbit. By 1955, tenured “rocketeers” even proposed a rockoon system that carried a 13,500-pound rocket to 15 miles via balloon before firing the first-stage engines. The first stage would drive the payload to 20 miles, the second to 200 and the third would put a 30-pound payload into orbit. Sadly, the idea was dropped when better rocket boosters were developed several years later. But does this mean that the concept is flawed form an economic standpoint? 

The two most iconic aircraft of historical significance in the annals of aviation were carried to the upper atmosphere to lessen their burden of achieving the speed records they are pursuing. The first aircraft to break the sound barrier – the Bell X-1 – was dropped from a B-29 mother ship at 35, 000-feet before it can achieve the feat of flying faster than the speed of sound; as with the X-15 which was carried to 35,000 feet by its B-52 mother ship to 35,000 feet before it can achieve a speed record of flying six times the speed of sound. So launching rocket-propelled payloads from the vantage point of the upper atmosphere does make sense from both an engineering and economical standpoint.