Free Fall From The Edge Of Space

Ever since the dawn of time, there must have been daredevils – those humans who just don’t feel comfortable with the limits nature has put upon us. Mankind always wants to do that which nature has said we shouldn’t – fly to the edge of space, climb to the top of the world, dive to the bottom of the sea. Thanks to man’s competitive nature, simply doing that which man is not supposed to do isn’t enough, we also want to do it better, faster, and bigger than the next guy. This has certainly been the modus operendi for mankind since the beginning of recorded history, and things have not changed.

Still, when it comes to being a record-setting daredevil, there is crazy – and then there are the CRAZY. This second group consists of the men and women who were the first to fly across the Atlantic, first to climb Mt. Everest, first go to space, first to dive to the deepest depths of the sea. Certainly, among this group will be included Felix Baumgartner, who on Tuesday will attempt a record setting skydive of 23 miles. Yes, you read right. The man is set to jump out of a high-tech hot air balloon from the edge of space – and attempt to be the first person to break the sound barrier in free fall during his descent.

Passing The Torch

The idea first began in 2005, the product of Baumgartner and Red Bull energy drinks. Baumgartner will attempt to break former US Air Force command pilot Joe Kittinger’s 52 year old record – a 19 mile skydive. During that record setting project, code named Project Excelsior, Kittinger jumped from a platform 102,800 feet above the earth. In a sign of goodwill, as well as a nod to his continuing expertise and knowledge, Kittinger has actually joined the team which will attempt to break his own record. Kittinger is passing the extreme BASE jump torch to Baumgartner. Besides Kittinger’s role in assisting the in the planning, the former Air Force pilot will control radio contact with Baumgartner as he descends to earth.

Project Technology

The technology for the project had to be designed from scratch. Because the record attempt, codenamed Project Stratos, is privately funded, the entire operation is taking on a much more private sector feel. The balloon which will take Baumgartner into space has a capacity of 30 million cubic feet of helium – about 10 times the capacity of the balloon used in Kittinger’s original attempt – which had a 3 million cubic capacity. The balloon itself is made out of high-performance polyethylene. It will start out at about 55 stories high, but take on a more rounded shape as it gains altitude and the helium expands.

A Space Suit Designed For A Skydive

Also, since Baumgartner will essentially go into space in order to begin the descent, a space suit – think those worn by astronauts – will be worn. The team actually had to contact the David Clark space suit company to design the suit, which was reportedly the company’s first time being contracted for a non-governmental purpose. As the human body goes into space – at about 60,000 feet or more, the liquids inside the human body can turn into gas. Pressure is needed to keep everything inside the human body working properly – hence the need for the pressurized space suit. Also needed – to be able to breathe. The suit will provide Baumgartner will pure oxygen for the duration of the event, from launch to landing.

Because Baumgartner will rapidly pass through many layers of space, starting out about 120,000 feet above the earth, the team has developed a “smart” suit which will be able to adjust the pressure in the suit as he descends. The helmet of the suit will obviously be pressurized as well. The visor uses distortion free glass. What’s the point of the whole exercise if you can’t take in the view on the way down? Baumgartner’s design team even included a drinking straw in order to provide him hydration on his way down, and radio contact equipment.

Breaking The Sound Barrier In Freefall

OK, now that we have gotten all the technical stuff out of the way, let’s get to the really fun stuff. How long will the fall last, and what speed will he actually reach? Since Baumgartner expects to fall from an altitude of 120,000 feet, he is expected to reach a free fall speed of over 690 miles per hour, which in the colder background of space, will be faster than the speed of sound – as sound travels slower in colder environments. Baumgartner will be in free fall for an amazing 5 ½ minutes, which is about a minute longer than the previous record of just over 4 ½ minutes. The parachute is expected to deploy at about 5000 feet above the earth’s surface.

Baumgartner is an extremely accomplished skydiver, having logged a reported 2,500 jumps or more in his career. Also, though Tuesday’s dive will be the highest of his career, it is by no means the first extreme altitude jump of Baumgartner’s career. He has completed descents of 71,615.2 feet and 97,145.7 feet in preparation for the big event. All the tests have gone smoothly as Baumgartner is concerned, though the capsule did suffer some damage on the most recent test jump. All reports are that capsule has been successfully repaired in anticipation for next week’s record setting attempt.

There is a great sense of excitement, and worry, about this – man’s most recent greatest daredevil attempt. The margin for error is so small that the date for the attempt was changed from Monday to Tuesday in order to avoid high winds. Because of the sensitivity of the balloon the ground level winds cannot exceed 2 miles per hour. Yes, it is that serious. Baumgartner faces so many risks that they are almost too many to name. He faces entering an uncontrolled spin while descending – which can cause him to black out. This actually happened to Kittinger, and it almost killed him. He faces getting the bends as he descends. He faces parachute problems. But, ultimately, if all goes well, he faces his date with destiny – an infamy as one of history’s all-time greatest daredevils.

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