14 October 2012


When I was in college in the early 1980s, my Ecology and Evolutionary Biology curriculum was saturated by science and math courses (on which I thrived).  For escapist reading, I avidly devoured science fiction ~ especially those authors whose writing had some actual foundation in physics, biology, and cosmology.  I vividly recall one breathtaking scene (in a book whose title escapes me) ~ the hero had to escape his spacecraft by donning a skintight pressure suit and helmet, and then simply stepping outside.  His mass was captured by Earth's gravity, and he fell many miles before deploying his parachute to land safely on the surface.

Yesterday's science fiction, as often happens, has become today's reality.  Earlier today, Austrian sky diver Felix Baumgartner entered a one-man capsule and was lifted by a helium-filled balloon to an altitude exceeding 127,000 feet (over 24 miles) above the Earth's surface, placing him well into the stratosphere (see image below, click to enlarge).  Wearing a pressurized suit, he then launched himself from the capsule into freefall.

During his 4 minute 19 second descent, Baumgartner achieved a record maximum speed of 833.9 mph, becoming the first human to break the sound barrier without an aircraft.  He also broke the record for the highest freefall jump.  Yet, David Brin noted on Facebook, "Did anyone notice?  While breaking Joe Kittinger's altitude record, Baumgartner kindly opened his chute seconds before breaking Kittinger's freefall record [4 minutes 36 seconds], leaving it standing.  Now that's class."  (Kittinger was Baumgartner's mentor and friend throughout the five-year project, and coached him through every stage of the ascent and preparation, right up until Baumgartner leaped out into space ~ see image above, click to enlarge.)

Here is a video showing the in-capsule preparation, the jump, and the successful landing via parasail in the Nevada desert.  And here is an article describing the technology behind the dive ~ the balloon, the capsule, the diving/space suit, and the system of cameras used to document the event.

There may be those who decry spending so much money, time, and effort on setting just another record.  Yet I find it wonderful and inspiring.  In times of economic and emotional duress, it is heartening to know that human imagination, skill and daring are capable of such feats.  Besides, you never know what future applications which will benefit us all may arise from enterprises which focus so closely on science and human ability.

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