July 14, 2010

Skydiver Making Progress Towards Historic Space Jump

An Austrian daredevil is making progress with his plans to jump from the edge of space in a dive that would shatter world skydive records as well as the sound barrier.

Felix Baumgartner is getting closer and closer to making his dream a reality. He has recently completed a series of high-altitude test jumps and plans to make the record-setting attempt later this year.

Baumgartner will start in the stratosphere at 120,000 feet and will leap from a capsule suspended by a helium balloon near the boundary of space.

The jump mission, sponsored by the energy drink company Red Bull and aptly named Red Bull Stratos, will extend the "safety zone" of human atmospheric bailout, which was last set in 1960, when diver Joe Kittinger leapt from 102,800 feet. The "safety zone" defines the uppermost altitude a human being can safely jump from.

"Right now, the space shuttle escape system is certified to 100,000 feet," said Jonathan Clark, former NASA flight surgeon and medical director for Baumgartner's mission. "Why is that? Because Joe Kittinger went there. You've got a lot of companies that are vying for the role of being the commercial space transport provider for tourism, for upper atmospheric science, and so on. These systems, particularly during the test and development phase, need a potential escape system, which we may be able to help them provide with the knowledge we gain," he said.

A team of aeronautics experts led Baumgartner through a week-long series of tests meant to ready him and his equipment and familiarize him with the skills needed to navigate the conditions that can exist at those altitudes when he opens his vessel door.

Baumgartner practiced exiting and stepping off his hot-air balloon at Sage Cheshire Aerospace test grounds in California to ready himself for the mission. Even a slight stumble during the step-off could cause dangerous alterations in his in-flight position, and could also reduce his chances of actually breaking the sound barrier.

"The team anticipated that the capsule would tip forward when Felix moved his approximately 270-pound self from the seated center position of the capsule to the step-off platform on the edge of the capsule," Red Bull Stratos Aerial Strategist and Skydiving Consultant Luke Aikins told SPACE.com.

"What the exercise demonstrated was that the capsule moved only about a foot, which tells us that we don't have to worry about the capsule swinging back violently when Felix steps off," Aikins said.

Baumgartner proceeded to practice his step-off technique at higher elevations by bungee jumping while wearing a pressurized spacesuit and helmet. At 200 feet up, the setting was a far cry from the 120,000 foot jump, but did mimic the sensation of trying to achieve the necessary forward rotation, noted mission technical director Art Thompson.

Baumgartner perfected the step-off routine after a few tries, but he acknowledged there was still an unknown, "which is what happens to my body when I break the speed of sound, but at least we're going to know that I'm able to handle the step-off."

He then went on to pass several high altitude test dives at 26,000 feet. Thanks to a new chest pack aligned to one side of his body, Baumgartner exhibited a harmonious passage compared to previous trials a year earlier.

The previous chest pack had jammed his helmet, blocked his vision and constrained his movement during descent and the critical landing.

Baumgartner wondered if the dangerous mission would be his demise. "My biggest concern is that dangerous part of the project which we just haven't thought of," Baumgartner said in a statement. "We try to think of every contingency, but there's always going to be something that you would never imagine could happen. And that might kill you."

The possibility haunted him enough to impact the decision to invite his own mother to observe the dive. "If everything is successful, I would love to have her on site, because the first person that I would want to talk with is my mom, of course," he said. "But if something goes wrong, I definitely don't want my mum on site, because I don't want her to witness a fatality. So I still haven't made up my mind."

According to a spokesperson for Red Bull, the event will take place somewhere in North America this year. Along with a wide range of experts, Baumgartner's mentor Joe Kittinger will also be present for the dive.


Image Caption: Red Bull Stratos tests reveal challenges of freefall in a space suit. Credit: Red Bull Stratos


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