24 Miles Above the Earth


Orange and Blue layers of Earth’s atmosphere,picture taken from ISS. Picture from NASA.
On Sunday, October 14, 2012, my husband, my daughter and I gathered in our living room, tuned into the high-definition Discovery Channel on TV, and watched the Red Bull Stratos skydiver, Felix Baumgartner, jump out of a tiny little capsule 128,097 feet up in the Earth’s atmosphere and free-fall/parachute down to earth.

Actually, for the part of the ascent that we watched on the television, from about 90,000 feet to 128,000 feet, our daughter was asking, repeatedly, when we were going to play or turn on cartoons. She wasn’t following the altitude, temperature, and pressure figures, and she didn’t catch the urgency in Baumgartner’s voice when he was depressurizing the capsule but the door wasn’t opening as quickly as he thought it should. Nor did she understand the amazing history being made as the prior record holder for highest-altitude sky-dive, retired USAF Colonel Joe Kittinger, read the egress checklist to Baumgartner.

But, when the door of the capsule opened, she started paying attention. When the command came to undo the seat belt and stand up, she jumped into her Daddy’s lap, burying her head in his chest, as if watching the scary part of a movie. When Baumgartner stood and looked down and his TV audience shared his view of Earth, we all gasped. I confess it was dizzying. I could not have let go and let myself fall.

There was worry as he was spinning and tumbling. To what kind of G-forces was his body being subjected? Would he come out of that part of the fall conscious?

The fact that he managed to conclude the event by landing, beautifully on his feet was simply amazing.

There is no doubt that Felix Baumgartner is a well conditioned athlete and expert, skilled sky diver. But was this just an Evil Knievel-like stunt, or is there more to be gained here?

Well for one, the ultra-high jump was watched live by 8 million people on YouTube—or 8 million computers (each could have been serving more than one person). We don’t know how many additional people watched on televisions. So millions of people got a little exposure to some math and science. They learned about the layers of the Earth’s atmosphere; they saw what happens to temperature and pressure as you go up in altitude; they saw first-hand what happens to the shape of a lighter-than-air balloon as you get into the less dense areas of the earth’s atmosphere. If this jump turns a few kids on to science and math or engineering, or expands the imaginations of a few tired adults, then I applaud it.

The technology that enabled this jump is also impressive, and has the potential for application outside of high-altitude free falls. The special space suit that Baumgartner wore for the jump was designed to protect him from the environmental extremes experienced during the fall and to deliver oxygen in the ultra-low pressure atmosphere in which he found himself. The cameras in the suit and the capsule are themselves technological marvels, and a unique system had to be developed to track the capsule and Baumgartner during the flight and the dive. I don’t know what physiological data were tracked during the jump, but I suspect we will learn a lot more about stress responses in the human body from his experiences as well.

It will be interesting to see how the technologies developed for this ultra-high jump become adapted and adopted for everyday activities. Space exploration and its offshoots have a way of doing that—creeping into our everyday lives.

So what is the conclusion from today’s activities? Did Baumgartner set all new records?

As it turns out Kittinger still holds the record for longest free fall, but Baumgartner did set the record for fastest speed ever reached (preliminary figures from the Red Bull Stratos blog: 1137 kpm) and highest altitude jump (128,097 feet).

Amazing.

© 2012 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

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