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Get Down: Felix Baumgartner Is Space Diving in Pursuit of Science

by Dave Mosher

Editor’s Note: On Oct. 14, 2012, Baumgartner successfully completed his record-breaking jump, leaving his capsule at an altitude of 128,100 feet and achieving a speed of 833.9 mph (Mach 1.24) during freefall.

On Tuesday Oct. 9, an Austrian named Felix Baumgartner plans to ride a 600-foot tall balloon halfway up the stratosphere. When he reaches 120,000 feet, he will jump.

What happens next is swathed in mystery, but a few things are certain. For a short time inside his pressurized spacesuit, Baumgartner, a professional BASE jumper, will be the fastest man alive. Thirty seconds after leaping, he’ll exceed the speed of sound in the thin upper atmosphere by traveling almost 700 miles per hour. And if he safely parachutes to the ground between 12 and 15 minutes later, he’ll walk away with at least four new records: the highest skydive, the longest free-fall, the first to reach supersonic speeds in free-fall, and the highest manned balloon ride.

Energy drink company Red Bull is supporting the Stratos project with an undisclosed amount of money estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars. Project team members, however, insist that their effort isn’t a publicity stunt.

"We want to prove to the world that these conditions are survivable," Baumgartner said in an interview last week. "This is where we are kind of pioneers, and hopefully people will use our equipment and our technology in the future."

Stratos team member Joseph Kittinger agreed. “The objective is science. You don’t go into a situation like this to set a record. You go in to get knowledge.”

Kittinger, a former Air Force command pilot, is perhaps the only man alive who can speak from experience. In 1960, he claimed the world record for the highest and fastest skydive in the world after leaping from a balloon at 102,800 feet as part of Project Excelsior, which studied high altitude jumps. Kittinger has not only helped train Baumgartner throughout the 5-year-long effort, but also had a major hand in developing the capsule, its life support systems and other equipment.

When Baumgartner’s space dive is complete, Kittinger said the Stratos team plans to “share all of the data that we have” with commercial spaceflight companies and NASA. These parties plan to rocket people into extremely hostile environments, so Stratos’ hard data, the thinking goes, might help space fliers survive a suborbital calamity.

Collecting data should be the easy part. Safely launching a 30 million-cubic-foot balloon with a human tethered to the end is another matter.

Rising to the Challenge

"Everything has to be perfect to launch the balloon. If we’re able to manage that, we’ve accomplished a lot," Baumgartner said. "Without launching a balloon, there’s no jump."

Stratos needs to loft a 2,900-pound capsule — plus Baumgartner in his stiff, bulky spacesuit — to at least 120,000 feet. The balloon is made out of a polyethylene material not too different from the thin bags launderers slip over dry-cleaned clothes. Even then, the balloon itself will weigh about 3,000 pounds, and it’s a vulnerable setup: A rogue wind buffeting the balloon’s taut skin could doom the mission.

"There’s a big potential that [the balloon] can tear apart," Baumgartner said.

To minimize this risk, Stratos is planning its launch attempt between July and October from Roswell, New Mexico. The semi-arid region’s summer is known for extremely stable weather. Pockets of wind shear during the 3-hour-long ascent could also threaten the balloon, however, so the team will scout with a weather balloon before the master attempt.

Should Baumgartner’s ride pop during the three-hour-long trip, his capsule is equipped with an emergency parachute.

Suiting Up

Beyond that, a 36-pound spacesuit is all that separates Baumgartner from a hostile world that would boil the blood in his body.

Baumgartner will wear a chest pack crammed with data-hungry instruments to help ground controllers monitor the attempt — and log scientific data. Some will keep tabs on his heart rate and oxygen intake to see how a body in a spacesuit reacts to a boundary no one has broken (and lived to tell the tale): the speed of sound.

Dr. Jonathan Clark of Baylor College of Medicine, a former space shuttle crew surgeon for NASA, said the team is particularly concerned about the feat itself, which will probably occur around 100,000 feet up. (Baumgartner may not know he has surpassed the speed of sound, so the suit is designed to deliver a ring tone if he does.)*

One slight albeit real risk is colliding supersonic shock waves, called shock-shock interactions. If Baumgartner’s head-first, bullet-like position is compromised during the jump, such aerodynamic heating has the chance to compromise his suit.

"Shock-shock interaction is in my estimation, the biggest unknown … we don’t adequately understand," Clark said. "As nobody has done this before, this data will be invaluable in advancing human exploration."

In addition to beaming down a video feed of Baumgartner’s face (which will help ground controllers assess his health), the chest pack will telemeter GPS location, atmospheric temperature, altitude, inertia, and speed. It will also allow the space diver to communicate with the ground — in particular Kittinger, who plans to coax Baumgartner through the jump.

One of the biggest dangers is a flat spin. Beyond 120 rotations per minute, the twirling can knock out the toughest of skydivers. “The possibility of spinning is inversely proportional to altitude. It’s exactly what happened to me,” said Kittinger of one of his early project Excelsior space-diving attempts. “The centrifugal force was so great I couldn’t pull my arms in to control it.”

A special drogue chute will deploy from Baumgartner’s spacesuit and help stabilize him if he enters an uncontrollable spin. But if his suit is compromised, he’ll be exposed to deadly low pressure that could lead to ebullism, a lethal condition where gas bubbles form in bodily fluids.

Lasting Success?

If Baumgartner endures the risky balloon ride and supersonic free-fall, he’ll be left to do what he does best: plummet to Earth, pull the ripcord and parachute to the ground.

"The rest of the free fall part is pretty much like a regular skydive," he said. "It’s just faster, but you don’t feel the speed because there’s no reference. There’s almost sound up there, so you don’t hear the noise."

It remains to be seen if the jump is successful and the scientific data captured during the attempt valuable to both government programs and commercial spaceflight companies. (Many of the outfits have no plans for a pressurized spacesuit or escape system.)

Regardless, Baumgartner and his team remain determined.

"This is cutting edge science, this is the modern time of space exploration," Baumgartner said. "Space exploration is becoming more and more popular and those people … need protection."

* Clarified to reflect that Clark is, in fact, concerned about all aspects of the jump.

Top Image: Felix Baumgartner, stepping into the void from 71,580 feet during a test jump in March. Photo courtesy Jay Nemeth/Red Bull Content Pool.

Dave Mosher is a contributor to Wired and a freelance science journalist who writes for National Geographic News, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American and other outlets.

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