For all my love of aviation and aeronautics I’ve never taken the opportunity to leap from a flying aircraft to experience a glympse of what weightlessness would feel like for a brief moment in time. It’s not due to fear, although I did struggle with heights up until I started rock climbing as a teenager, more I’d say it was due to sheer laziness on my own part. There’s a recurring joke amongst our group of friends that we should go sky diving at the end of the year, only for it to never happen. We’ll make excuse after excuse for not doing it, but in reality we’re just really lazy.
That doesn’t stop me from being interested in the sport however. One of the most popular ways for you to get flight hours up is to become a sky diving pilot. They do an exceptional amount of hours ferrying people up there and usually all your flight costs are paid for (you getting paid is a grey area in Australia, elsewhere is downright illegal if you’re not licensed commercially). So when news came my way of a skydiver attempting to break the record for highest jump ever I was instantly intrigued:
A “space diver” will try to smash the nearly 50-year-old record for the highest jump this year, becoming the first person to go supersonic in freefall. The stunt could help engineers design escape systems for space flights.
On 16 August 1960, US Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger made history by jumping out of a balloon at an altitude of some 31,333 metres. “I stood up and said a prayer and stepped off,” he recalled (see Space diving: The ultimate extreme sport).
Since then, many have tried to break that record but none have succeeded – New Jersey native Nick Piantanida actually died trying in 1966. Now Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner has announced he will make the attempt, with help from Kittinger and sponsorship from the energy drink company Red Bull.
I’ve heard about many people attempting to break this record before and have always shared their disappointment when they’ve failed. Still when I first heard about a similar attempt a year or so ago I decided to look up the person who held the current record, Joe Kittinger. His record stands as part of experiments to make sure that pilots ejecting at high altitudes wouldn’t go into a fatal flat spin when return to earth at extremely high speeds (such as those achieved by the SR-71 which exceeds Mach 3). His work also paved the way for something novel that NASA has only recently begun to test: orbital skydiving.
For any space mission the trip and back down is the most dangerous time as that’s when huge changes in energy are occurring. On the way up you’re being accelerated to an equivalent of Mach 25 and when you’re coming back down you have to lose all of that speed somehow. For nearly all spacecraft this is done via what’s called an Ablative Heat Shield, which basically melts away and produces a gas layer that keeps most of the heat away from the space craft. These are extremely heavy and in an industry where any weight you carry up means that much more fuel and less payload alternatives are constantly being searched for. This research then spun off a very interesting idea.
NASA, in their quest to find better alternatives to ablative shields started to look at exotic designs and materials. One of them was proposed by a partner agency Aerojet which consisted of what amounts to a giant nose cone shaped balloon covered in a wire cloth impregnated with silicon rubber and silicon carbide dust. The shield itself wasn’t meant for spacecraft, it was meant as an escape craft for astronauts who were stuck on a space station with no where else to go. It was, in essence, a space parachute.
As crazy as it sounds the idea had some legs and NASA has been investigating it thoroughly. In fact last year saw the test of IRVE, which was a slightly more advanced version of the Aerojet proposal. All the tests looked good and whilst we’re a fair way away from strapping an actual person to one of these things and seeing if they can make it back to earth safely it does show that there are many ways of improving safety in space. I can only imagine the space liner of the future will be packed with enough of these to ensure all future private astronauts can return to earth safely.
It’s this kind of envelope pushing that drives the fledgling space industry forward. Whilst people like Baumgartner are seen as the extreme dare devils of today they will be looked back upon as those who pushed the limits of our perception and forced a paradigm shift amongst us all. I wait for the day that for the cost of say a concord flight will buy you an orbital sky dive.
What a rush that would be!