Felix Baumgartner jumped 24 miles from the edge of space, breaking the speed of sound as he plummeted in free fall for 4 minutes and 19 seconds before pulling his parachute and drifting down to earth.
It was truly historic feat, one that transcended sponsored daredevilism. Because of Baumgartner’s jump, NASA will soon know how to better design suits and visors to help astronauts survive when spaceflight might go wrong.
But what’s next?
What record-breaking exploit will Red Bull or some other patron of adrenaline think up next? Where can man go from here?
We’ve got some ideas about the next generation of skydiving.
King Felix is the fastest non-vehicular human ever. Speeding toward the ground at 834 mph or Mach 1.24, Felix broke the sound barrier by nearly 70 mph, with recovery teams hearing a sonic boom from four different locations on the ground. But Felix isn’t the fastest human ever. The astronauts aboard the Apollo 10 Lunar Module, who in 1969 reached speeds of 24,791 mph while burning their way through the atmosphere en route back to earth are. A free-falling man unencumbered by a “craft” probably won’t reach that speed, which is faster than Mach 25, anytime soon. The expedition’s cost simply wouldn’t be worth its benefit to science (or to the sponsor). But it’s not implausible that a free-falling man will one day go faster than Felix. For that to occur, an Adrenalist would have to jump from even further up than 24 miles. Felix achieved his top speed after just 40 seconds of freefall before being slowed by the earth’s atmosphere. By jumping from higher, an adventurer may one day accelerate for a longer duration, thus reaching a faster terminal velocity than that achieved by King Felix.
The Red Bull Stratos mission reached a maximum altitude of 128,100 feet or 24 miles above the surface of the earth — a height so space-y that Felix Baumgartner’s brain could have literally exploded had his suit sprung a leak. Impressive, no doubt, but it’s just half the altitude Felix would have to attain to become eligible for astronaut wings. NASA considers the boundary of the mesosphere and the thermosphere to be 50 miles above the earth’s surface, the edge of space. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is even less forgiving, recognizing the Kármán line, 62 miles above sea level, as the true edge of space. No matter what standard you follow, humans have a ways to go before we really jump back to earth from space. The question is not whether a man can get there — the International Space Station orbits at an altitude of about 230 miles above the earth — but whether he can survive the fall without the security of a re-entry craft. We may not know for sure until some Adrenalist tries.
Even More Free Fall
The Red Bull Stratos mission set three of four intended records: the highest manned balloon flight, the highest skydive and the first human to ever break the sound barrier without the assistance of an aircraft. But Felix missed out on one record. About 3 minutes, 40 seconds into his dive, his visor began to fog up, making it difficult for him to determine his rapidly diminishing altitude. At 4 minutes 16 seconds, Felix activated his parachute ending the free fall 20 seconds short of the duration record set in 1960 by Felix’s mentor and the only member of mission control who could speak directly with Felix during the mission, USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger. Felix could have fallen 20 seconds more, and even longer had he positioned himself through his 119,846-foot free fall to maximize air resistance, thus slowing his descent and lengthening his time in the air. One day, a jumper will free fall for 5 minutes or longer, and he won’t necessarily have to jump from as high as Felix’s altitude to do so.