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.