BASE jumping might just be about to enter the mainstream. What has typically been considered a fringe activity, reserved for thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies, could soon be firmly cemented in the public view. For the uninitiated, BASE jumping is like skydiving, without the plane. Participants throw themselves off bridges, antennae, buildings, cliffs, and well, whatever high object they can find. It's not illegal, "in theory", but as many of the chosen launch spots are public or private property -- or pose a risk to public safety -- gaining access to, or jumping from them, can mean stepping over the legal line.
This otherwise obstreperous activity has largely kept to itself, occasionally popping up in magazines, or YouTube videos, but -- all going well -- on Monday that changes. Serial boundary pusher (of wing suit across the English Channel fame) Felix Baumgartner is set to leap, in the most literal sense of the word, from relative obscurity into the history books. How? By jumping to earth from the edge of space, likely breaking the sound barrier as he does so. How does one go from humble Austrian beginnings to a capsule 120,000 feet (about 23 miles) above the Earth's surface? Make a comparatively tiny leap past the break to find out.
As you can imagine, leaping out of a capsule 23 miles above Roswell, N.M., isn't a plan you cook up in a week or two.
As you can imagine, leaping out of a capsule 23 miles above Roswell, N.M., isn't a project you cook up in a week or two. It was 2005 when Baumgartner started planning the idea with Red Bull. The core goal of the mission, dubbed "Stratos," is to break a 52-year-old record set by former US Air Force command pilot Joe Kittinger. That record? A 19-mile skydive, aka Project Excelsior, a military initiative to design a parachute system that would allow pilots to survive high-altitude ejection. One part of which involved Kittinger jumping from a capsule 102,800 feet above the planet. Since the Stratos project's inception seven years ago, Kittinger himself has become part of the team, whose primary role will be mission control's radio contact with Baumgartner during his ascent.
Joe Kittinger jumping in 1960
Unlike the government-backed '60s effort, Red Bull Stratos is an entirely privately funded endeavor. This means that all the design, planning and technology has to be brought in. Enter Art Thompson, technical project director. Thompson has over 30 years' experience in the aerospace field, and was part of the team that conceived the B-2 stealth bomber. It's his expertise that has been instrumental in designing the capsule that will lift Baumgartner to his launch point in safety, and -- dare we say it -- comfort. Thompson was also the first collaborator on the project and helped assemble the rest of the mission's team.
While Baumgartner and his predecessor clearly have a lot in common, their respective efforts also throw up some significant differences. Back in the '60s, most of the equipment used was reportedly off-the-shelf gear, modified for the purpose. Everything on the current mission is bespoke, including the David Clark Company space suit -- the first ever for a non-government space program. Likewise, the original record height was reached using a 3-million-cubic-foot helium balloon, while Stratos is using one 10 times the capacity, a whopping 30 million cubic feet.
Left to right: Joe Kittinger, Felix Baumgartner, Art Thompson and Mike Todd
A balloon and a suit is a good start, but if you plan to be the first human to break the speed of sound in freefall, you'll need some serious kit. The custom-built capsule, for example, with its pressure sphere, cage and outer shell are positively palatial compared to Kittinger's open gondola. The Sage Cheshire Aerospace design also means that Baumgartner stands a far better chance of avoiding decompression sickness -- aka the bends -- and can keep his suit uninflated for most of the ascent. Once inflated, movement is restricted, so the longer he's able to avoid that, the better.
The 1,315-kilogram capsule will be lifted by the aforementioned 30 million cubic feet of helium. Holding that gas in place will be a balloon made of strips of 0.008-inch-thick high-performance polyethylene. Laid out flat, the material would cover 40 acres, and once full of the gas, and ready for launch, it'll stand tall and thin -- some 55 stories high. As it ascends, the helium will expand, giving the balloon a much more rounded appearance.
Above around 62,000 feet, the liquid in the human body can turn to gas, which we imagine isn't much fun.
That's not the only thing that is at risk of extreme expansion though. Above around 62,000 feet, the liquid in the human body can turn to gas, which we imagine isn't much fun. That's why you need a pressurized suit. The one used in this mission contains a "brain" that will maintain an even pressure automatically over the descent, as its wearer passes through different parts of the atmosphere. It's not just a tool to keep Baumgartner alive, either. The Stratos team has had to make some additions to overcome problems caused by restriction of movement. These include mirrors and added mobility features which could serve as a prototype for future high-altitude or full-pressure suits.
What about enjoying the view on the way down? That's where the visor and helmet come in. The glass used is distortion-free, and the pressurized helmet contains a regulator that will feed Baumgartner pure oxygen throughout all the legs of his journey via liquidized sources while on the ground and in the capsule, and from gaseous oxygen in cylinders on his suit during the descent. Other important bits of kit include a microphone and earphones for radio contact, as well as a drinking port for hydration. Whether it'll feed him Red Bull, however, is unclear.
So it's a long way down. We get that. But let's try and get some perspective. 23 miles. That's a reasonable drive in anyone's book, now imagine that just at the mercy of gravity. Of course, it'll be much quicker without all the roads and traffic and normal Earth stuff to worry about. It's estimated that within 40 seconds of his jump, Baumgartner will break the sound barrier, which at that altitude means going faster than 690 miles per hour (as sound moves more slowly through cold air).
It's not just a case of taking a step forward, either. To prevent entering into an uncontrollable spin, with no atmosphere to slow him down, Baumgartner also needs to make sure that he keeps a stable body position when he makes that important leap. No one knows this more than Kittinger, who found out at great cost when his stabilizing parachute deployed too early during one of his test jumps, getting tangled around his neck and causing him to spin his way down at an estimated rate of 120 times a minute, unconscious, only to be saved by the automatic deployment of his main parachute.
As well as being the first person to go faster than the speed of sound in freefall, Baumgartner expects to jump from 120,000 feet, nearly 18,000 feet above Kittinger's record.
Once diving, and safely in position, this is where the fun really begins, and records -- hopefully -- start to tumble. As well as being the first person to go faster than the speed of sound in freefall, Baumgartner expects to jump from 120,000 feet, nearly 18,000 feet above Kittinger's record. Over this distance, Baumgartner is also expected to achieve the longest ever freefall duration, estimated at about five and a half minutes (previous record: 4:36) as well as get the record for highest ever manned balloon flight bundled into the deal for free. Despite having accomplished all that, the journey will be far from over. The last 5,000 feet represent only a fraction of the total distance, but account for at least two-thirds of the total jump time. At this height is when the parachute will finally be deployed, and the -- relatively -- leisurely descent to earth can begin. All that remains now is for Baumgartner to land back in the desert, safe and sound, and stake his claim in the history books.
Then and now
The last seven years of preparation haven't been spent entirely at the drawing board. The team has already performed two successful test runs -- jumps that would, to any other normal person, be a once-in-many-lifetimes event in itself. The first back in March from a height of 71,615.2 feet (about 13 miles) put them into the stratosphere and passed without problem. The second test jump in July measured in at 97,145.7 feet (approx. 18 miles) which saw our protagonist reach 536.8 miles per hour with a freefall of three minutes and 48 seconds. While Baumgartner landed safely, the capsule came down to earth with something of a thud, causing some external damage, and inevitably concern.
On September 24th, the repaired capsule underwent simulation testing and was officially declared fit for purpose, putting the project back on track for a third and final jump attempt. Soon after, the team announced a proposed launch date of October 8th, and now all that stands between them and the event is a weekend of tortuous waiting, and the New Mexico weather. Thompson optimistically reminds us that this is "one of the best times of the year to launch stratospheric balloons." And a good thing, too, we say.
So, as the morning sun prepares to light up the arid plains of New Mexico on Monday, the team will be on the proverbial edge for a little while longer, before -- all going well -- Baumgartner stands on the literal one, with just one step between him, and glory. Of course, one other major difference between this jump and Kittinger's 52 years ago? All you have to do to watch it live is click on the source link below.
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