An Austrian skydiver broke the speed of sound in a jump from the ‘edge of space’ at 128,000 feet (~40km or ~24mi), as part of a Red Bull promotion, on Oct 14th, 2012, the 65th anniversary to Chuck Yeager’s record breaking that speed in flight. Can you imagine this? Breaking Mach 1 with your body. He was supersonic for about 30 seconds during the 4 minute free-falling part of his jump, reaching 1.25 Mach, then was slowed down by the drag of increasing air density. After 4:20 min. he deployed a parachute.
This wasn’t exactly where we define outer space to begin. Our atmosphere has 3 layers, and this altitude is at the higher part of the Stratosphere, the middle layer. The official edge-of-space is at 100km. Still, an out-of-this-world stunt.
- Regular skydivers jump from 4000-10,000 ft.
- Mount Everest is about 29,000 ft tall.
- Jet airliners always climb to above 18,000, and usually cruise at 30,000-39,000 ft, at the lower part of the Stratosphere. This is where the temperature is constant, so it’s above weather and turbulence conditions, and where air density is low so less drag and less fuel used. This is also at a quarter of the altitude of Felix’s jump!
Regular aircraft can’t reach this high. The aircraft that came closest is Blackbird SR-71, the spy-plane that was designed to fly at Mach 3, at 85,000 ft. That isn’t high enough!
What about SpaceShipTwo? Virgin Galactic’s space plane can’t reach so high either.
Space shuttles on the other hand, would be a slight overkill… They orbited at 200 miles and were decommissioned in July 2011. Baumgartner reached his jump point in capsule carried by a controlled helium balloon, wearing a pressurized suit. Others did that before, but this set the record also on the highest altitude for a manned balloon flight. His mentor for the mission was the previous record holder, Joseph Kittinger.
So I wonder, if he got in trouble in this jump could Superman help him?
The Superman character created in 1933, was given flight ability in 1940… his abilities increased until he could achieve spaceflight well before we could. This includes super-speed, as Superman was described as being faster than a speeding bullet.
On the low range a bullet leaves the muzzle of a gun at about 120m/s = 432km/h, much slower than Felix’s fall, but modern rifles can produce speeds 10 times as fast. It would seem Superman could indeed catch up to Felix if necessary.
Felix in fact did get in trouble. About a minute into the fall he got into an uncontrollable spin, much as seen in the movie Gravity, where the frantically spinning astronaut is played by actress Sandra Bullock. Felix managed to stop it without assistance, the mechanism by which he was able to get the situation under control is not clear. If he didn’t, this stunt might have resulted in his death.
I mentioned this story a couple months ago in a previous post discussing the Hyperloop - a proposal for a semi-vaccum operated bullet-fast Mach speed train. I come back to it fascinated with the concept of facing fear, especially fear of high speed. We got used to high velocity in our lives, such that has never been experienced by any living creature for millions of years, before humans started seeking it a couple centuries ago. We seek it for practical reasons, but also for recreation. No other organism is known to seek higher and higher speed recreationally. Running very fast was never our stronger side, and is not what helped our ancestors hunt or avoid getting hunted.
Still people enjoy facing this fear, experiencing speeds doing things that often get them killed. Cyclists observe the monuments along their favorite routes, as they descend on their bikes at speeds exceeding 100 km/h; Speed skiers exceed 300 km/h on a pair of skis, wearing fire-proof suits; Those of us who don’t reach that speed still find ourselves occasionally with a scream in the back of our head, rushing to the front to come out… knowing full well how mortal we are, we come back the next day to the same slope. We admire those who can do it better and faster than everyone else; the snow-borders, roller-bladers, race-car drivers; the motorcycle racers, stunt pilots, test pilots; The sky-divers, BASE jumpers, and the Felix Baumgartners.
If there is an evolutionary advantage to this behavior, pushing the limits to experience this rush – I don’t know what it is.