Space Diving

 

That’s Captain Joe Kittinger jumping out of a helium balloon in 1960, at a altitude of 20 miles. According to his Wikipedia entry, he actually made three jumps:

The first, from 76,400 feet (23,287 m) in November, 1959 was a near tragedy when an equipment malfunction caused him to lose consciousness, but the automatic parachute saved him (he went into a flat spin at a rotational velocity of 120 rpm; the G factor at his extremities was calculated to be over 22 times that of gravity, setting another record). Three weeks later he jumped again from 74,700 feet (22,769 m). For that return jump Kittinger was awarded the Leo Stevens parachute medal.

On August 16, 1960 he made the final jump from the Excelsior III at 102,800 feet (31,330 m). Towing a small drogue chute for stabilization, he fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds reaching a maximum speed of 614 mph before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,500 m). Pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent, causing his hand to swell. He set records for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall (14 min) and fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere. [1]

The jumps were made in a "rocking-chair" position, descending on his back, rather than the usual delta familiar to skydivers, because he was wearing a 60-lb "kit" on his behind and his pressure suit naturally formed that shape when inflated, a shape appropriate for sitting in an airplane cockpit.

For the series of jumps, Kittinger was decorated with an oak leaf cluster to his D.F.C. and awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Dwight Eisenhower.

A flat spin at 120 RPM, 22 G’s at his extremities? Would you pay to do something like this? While some are looking to profit from a new extreme sport, others see very practical research objectives, according to the Telegraph (U.K.):

Forget about bungee jumping and hang gliding. The next adrenaline pumping daredevil stunt will be hurtling back to Earth by "space diving," if entrepreneurs and extreme sports enthusiasts have their way.

They are preparing skydives from the edge of space to beat a record set by Captain Joe Kittinger of the US Air Force in 1960, who jumped from an altitude of 20 miles, reaching a speed of around 700 miles per hour in his 13 minute descent to the ground.

They aim to start with a jump from 22 miles to break Kittinger’s record, then build up to 57 miles, which would be the first true space jump. If everything works as planned, paying customers might be able to start their fiery descent from space as early as 2009.

Instead of jumping from the gondola of a helium balloon, as Kittinger did, New Scientist reports today that they will be bailing out from the nose-cone of a rocket ship, one of half dozen or so being developed to loft paying passengers into the heavens for a few minutes of weightlessness and a spectacular view of the Earth.

However, there is a serious underlying purpose since space jumpers will rely on the kind of gear that will be needed in case of emergencies if commercial space travel is ever to become routine.

advertisementThat is the driving force of one of the pioneers, Jonathan Clark, a former Nasa flight surgeon and military high-altitude parachutist, whose wife Laurel was killed during the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia in 2003 during reentry.

Developing space diving as a sport for thrill-seekers is the first step towards equipment that may spare future space travellers the same fate. "It’s almost a passion for me," says Clark, who works at the Space Biomedical Research Institute at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas, has been developing a computer controlled vertical take-off, vertical-landing spacecraft for the tourist trade, and the Space Diver team thinks the craft could offer the perfect jumping-off point.

The diver would trigger an airbag, springloaded seat, or a small parachute to move away from the spacecraft as fast as possible, so as to avoid a collision as he tumbled into the abyss. Then it would be up to the spacesuit to make sure the he copes with frigid temperatures and near vacuum to return safely.

Space promoter Rick Tumlinson, who has created the company Space Diver with Clark and others, also founded Orbital Outfitters, Los Angeles, to design, manufacture and lease spacesuits (motto: "Have space suit – will travel").

At an altitude of 20 miles, the air is so thin that there will be no rushing of air and little impression of falling. Gradually, as the air becomes denser, pressure against the diver’s body will increase and air friction will heat the suit, which will contain a circulating liquid cooling system.

One problem under study is how to prevent divers from going into a spin, which could leave them unconscious.The team is still debating whether a head-first posture or the traditional spreadeagled horizontal position is likely to work best. Once within a mile or so of the ground, the main parachute will deploy automatically.

Armadillo’s craft will be commanded from the ground, so after the diver has ejected it will return to Earth automatically. By early next year, Space Diver aims to begin low-altitude tests with dummies, then people, starting at a modest altitude of about two miles. "We need to show that we can leave the vehicle safely," Tumlinson tells New Scientist.

Ultimately, Tumlinson aims to develop technology to allow astronauts to bail out of orbiting craft and return safely to Earth, for instance in small inflatable "lifeboats".

If you can’t wait until 2009, there’s human gliding in the Alps:

 

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