2013: 11th of 13 Things I Want to Know: Could Superman Help Felix Baumgartner?

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.

Mount Everest Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mount Everest
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For comparison:

  • 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!
SR-71 Blackbird Source: iliketowastemytime.com

SR-71 Blackbird


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.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2 gizmag.com

Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2

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?

Superman Returns

Superman Returns

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.

Speeding Bullet Source: hd4desktop.com

Speeding Bullet
Source: hd4desktop.com

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.

Speed Skiing epicski.com

Speed Skiing

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.


Posted in Human Experience, Sci Fi | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

2013: 10th of 13 Things I Want to Know: What Credit Score Do I Need For a Home Loan on Mars?

Source: Mars One

Source: Mars One

Discovery news posted this short news bit earlier this year, summarizing that colonizing beyond our planet is a doable feat. This is based on expectations from private ventures, to be able to run operations much leaner than NASA, mainly relying on reusable rockets.  A vision of an 80,000 humans colony was shared as well.

A home loan company put together the enlightening and entertaining infographic below, showing via a graphical calculation that a not-so-bad scenario means a cost of $48 Billion to move to, and live on Mars.

If indeed it will cost almost $50 Billion for one adult to move to Mars, what credit score do I need to get a home loan? How long would it take me to pay it off, assuming a good salary working on Mars should cover it?
Here’s the very informative graphic (click on it to zoom):


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2013: 9th of 13 Things I Want to Know: Have You Considered the Hyperloop and the Fear Factor?

Much hype about the Hyperloop, the radical proposal for extreme high-speed transit from LA to SF in around 35 minutes, using passenger pods in a low pressure air-cushioned tube.  [Here’s a summary article]. Some of the reactions have a negative slant, hinting accusations such as that the inventor purposely underestimated the associated costs, attempting to sabotage the California High Speed Rail project out of malice and motive to profit. If anything, it would make more sense to believe the motive is the wish as a tax payer to see something better put in place. There’s a notion that the self-driving car would render this system obsolete because the long ride would no longer be wasteful of the driver’s time. This last article on Forbes.com IM(not…)HO makes no sense. If the cost of the ticket is not an issue, who wants to spend 5-6 hours confined in a car, when you can reach your destination in 35-45 minutes, then stretch your legs and go have breakfast (not to-go)?  If you don’t have better use of your time, come to this small unpretentious place in Cupertino CA, Coffee Society, where Steve Jobs used to hang out…

There is one aspect, however, of which I see no mention. The blog publication calls for technical commentary and feedback, but we can’t move on without the human factor; or rather, the fear factor. There has been discussion of safety, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. There’s also a discussion about vomit and handling a 0.5 G force. That’s still not it. In decades to come, if this writing survives the test of time some might review it and feel pity at the narrow-minded, fearful, primitives that we might prove to have been. After all, it’s the same pity that I felt as a kid, when reading about important inventions of the 20th century: some of those who spoke against the frightful ‘horseless-carriage’ claimed that at 60 kph (a little less than 40 mph) the wind will be so strong it will blow your head off.

This kind of comment is understandable, considering no one had any experience traveling that fast. We now know that the sensation of your head almost getting blown off only starts when traveling on a motorcycle (as an example) at speeds exceeding 120 mph. When this happens, all you have to do is keep your head as low as possible, behind the windshield. [U.S authorities should not be taking this as any admission that I have, in fact, traveled at such speeds on any U.S highway 🙂 ]

Source: jonnycinco.blogspot.com

Source: jonnycinco.blogspot.com

Few of us are thrill seekers, and will try anything even if it gets them killed. More of us will only try it, despite their fears, after it’s been proven for a while. Some of us will never try it. I can only imagine what it felt like, to climb into the first aircraft built after the concept was proved by the Wright brothers, when no one else has done it before.  Not everyone is Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver who broke the speed of sound in his last jump from the edge of space on Oct 15th, 2012. Not a coincidence, this date was the 15th anniversary of breaking Mach 1 and the all time speed record on land – on Oct 15th, 1997 by ThrustSSC, with engines borrowed from a British F-4 Phantom jet fighter, driven by Royal Air Force pilot Andy Green.  I suppose it does actually make sense that such speeds would be first driven by a jet pilot. This event celebrated in turn another anniversary: it was recorded 50 years (and one day) after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the air on Oct 14th, 1947.

Breaking Mach 1 on Land Source: http://www.speed101.com

Breaking Mach 1 on Land
Source: http://www.speed101.com

The plan says that “Beautiful landscape will be displayed in the cabin”, and the cabin will be enclosed in a steel tube, so I take it this means you can’t look outside. Other than acceleration and deceleration, you won’t feel the speed. However, I suspect many people won’t be able to tolerate being enclosed like that for 35 minutes, even if they are not claustrophobic.

What if there were windows, and if the tube had a glass dome? You don’t feel the speed on board an airliner at high altitude. But in this tube so close to the ground you would.  There are not many humans who have experienced traveling so fast, so close to the ground.  I can now only think of 8 such humans.

On June 7th, 1981, eight pilots put the Falcon F-16 on the hall of fame, in the one of the most shocking, daring military operations of modern history. Until then the F-16 was a relatively new wild bird. It was built to be lighter and cheaper, with only one engine, and first to use fly-by-wire. It’s volatile and unstable, but that’s exactly what could make it the most maneuverable fighter, all it takes is an extremely good pilot… and these eight were.  They were loaded to the very last drop of fuel, which had to last for a 1200 mile round trip – 600 miles in each direction. Realistically none of them expected to make it back. The mission was to fly over enemy territory, drop their bombs with extreme precision on target and return, but the target was protected with anti-aircraft missile defense systems. To avoid discovery by radar, they had to fly at extreme low altitude, at times 50-100 feet above ground, at 540 knots, for over an hour in each direction. I can’t begin to describe the nerves of steel that are needed to pull this off, to fly so low, so fast, for so long. Flying so low goes against every instinct. It feels too fast even with a light aircraft at only 100 knots, over the relative safely of flat water…  That flight must have felt like Anakin’s race scene in StarWars Episode 1.

It took a year of secret planning and training, and they did it. The nuclear reactor at the heart of young Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, that was just a few months shy of capacity to ignite a 3rd world war, was destroyed to the ground. When President Reagan got the call, he yelled at the phone: “They did what?!!”  The American cabinet with George Bush at the lead was outraged, but American military commanders called the Israeli Chief of Air Force to thank him. All 8 pilots came home. Elon Musk might be familiar with this story. One of these pilots had a first name of the same roots. It was Ilan Ramon, who later became an astronaut, and was killed with his 6 crewmates aboard the Columbia space shuttle on Feb. 1st 2003.

And now back to the Hyperloop idea. In 1995, Stephen Baxter published The Time Ships, a sequel to The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. In it he describes the view from the time machine, as the traveler passes through time faster and faster.  Cities rise and fall, the sun and moon’s fast movement become bright arcs circling in the sky, and everything else becomes a blur. Would this experience be anything like that?

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Source: en.wikipedia.org

As a society we have a need for speed… and people get used to technology. They want to embrace it, and want to follow the first brave souls who test it. For this one they might need more time. It’s not a two minute thrill ride in Disneyland that you can choose to avoid if you’re getting a headache. It’s supposed to become a means of transportation that people can count on to get them to their business meeting or unite them with their family without causing them a heart attack. It might take more than a one year fighter pilot’s training. I do believe we’ll get there eventually, but there will always be those who won’t set foot on it, just like there will always be Lieutenant Barclay who refuses to use the transporter beam…

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2013: 8th of 13 Things I Want to Know: How Much Deodorant Will the Winners of the AXE Apollo Competition Get?


At the beginning of this year, AXE brand of men’s personal care products created a sensation with a marketing stunt around a Superbowl ad. The ad presented users of the Apollo scent as heroes.  What can be more heroic than an astronaut? The promotional video therefor featured the hero astronaut and his girlfriend. I don’t think I ever saw anything so cheesy. In any case, somehow this brought about the idea of actually recruiting people to sign up, go through space-flight training, and compete against each other over a seat on the space-plane Lynx.

A model of the XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx suborbital space plane was in fact present at the Space Tech Expo conference in May 2013 in Long Beach, CA. This was the sign:

XCOR Lynx at Space Tech Expo

XCOR Lynx: the sign at Space Tech Expo May 2013

This was the booth. You can see the illustration on the left, showing the path the space plane takes when it flies to space. After an initial engine burst to get it to altitude, the rest is just a glide back to the ground.

XCOR Lynx at Space Tech Expo

XCOR Lynx at Space Tech ExpoAnd this was the model:

XCOR Lynx model

XCOR Lynx model

What’s most amazing about this story is that the plane will not be operational for another year at least, but AXE still managed to get Buzz Aldrin – the 2nd Moon-Walker – to sponsor this event. See a humorous article at wired.com, that was published in January after the initial announcement.

There was conflicting information about the gender the competition is open to. Some publications said the competition is open for both men and women. That’s not so clear from the ad at the top. In any case, I would like to know how the competitors enjoyed themselves in space training, and how much deodorant will they see from this deal…

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2013: 7th of 13 Things I Want to Know: Sending Up a Bag of Light – Why?

Source: azraelcoladilla.com

Source: azraelcoladilla.com

9:30 PM local time, a beach on the Pacific; Summer time, completely dark, and I was on my way out when some commotion caught my attention.  A group of people of all ages were gathered around some light source. Suddenly it rose up in the air, and everyone was cheering and clapping. I stopped, fascinated. A small fire was dancing around in the lantern’s bag while it was rising higher and higher. In just a few seconds it was too small for me to react and take a picture, but it looked exactly like the ones in the pictures posted here.

Source: azraelcoladilla.com

Source: azraelcoladilla.com

This is how this story started, and it’s been sitting in draft for a while because I didn’t know how it ends. Now I do. It’s all about sending things up.

A different beach, same planet, just today; Kids sending up a remote controlled helicopter. Go back in time, 15th century Italy: Leonardo Da Vinci working on his drawings for flying contraptions. A spin forward in the time machine: hot air balloons followed by the giant Zeppelins. Another spin, a small airport just around the corner: a dad and his two kids sitting on some rocks at the edge of the runway, eating sandwiches and watching aircraft taking off and landing. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum: Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebook, containing drawings and notes about bird flight has arrived, for the second time, on loan.

Leonardo Da vinci's Flight of Birds.  Source: Washingtonpost.com

Leonardo Da vinci’s Flight of Birds. Source: Washingtonpost.com

NASA’s account on Twitter: a government institution communicating about sending things up. Ardusat Kickstarter: a tiny cubicle satellite, paid for by the crowd, launched into space and the crowd take turns controlling it, taking pictures and running experiments. Bruno Mars: talking to the moon.

A Cube satellite nearing ISS. Source: Singularityhub.com

A Cube satellite nearing ISS. Source: Singularityhub.com

People have always been busy trying to rise up and leave our nest. Those who can – do. Those who thought about it early on – carve the career path that takes them there. Those who obsessed early enough – work in related industries.   Percent-wise, the number of people who care about it in a significant way and show any degree of interest and support is very small. If you ask people around you – colleagues, friends, family, neighbors, chances are they couldn’t care less, though they might show mild interest in significant news. But in numbers this tiny fraction does still translate to several million. A few million people ‘think the world’ of space exploration, aviation, and sending things up. Their support will ensure that progress doesn’t stop. I think to them Chris Hadfield dedicated his version of David Bowie’s words: “Ground Control to Major Tom!” This once-in-a-lifetime recording was published on May 12, 2013, on the eve of his last day as commander of the ISS, and last day on board.

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2013: 6th of 13 Things I Want to Know: What is the Biggest Eye Ever?

James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope
Source: NASA

NASA’s 2018 Next Generation James Webb Space Telescope in Full Size

Taking place in Austin, TX, the SXSW Interactive Festival Last March 8-12 2013 was to feature many sessions and activities on the topic of space exploration.  One of the most exciting sessions, was a panel discussion about the new next generation space telescope, NASA’s James Webb space telescope (JWST). In fact, the telescope was not only to be a subject for discussion, conference attendees could actually see it with their own eyes; or rather, a full size model. FULL size.

This telescope is to replace Hubble. It is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).  It will be 100 time more powerful, a tennis-court in size. It will be designed to answer questions for which you really need such a massive telescope, questions about the origins of the universe, the most distant galaxies, and objects that are hidden from our view. It will also participate in our continuous search for anyone else out there. It will be mainly designed for the infrared range, somewhat overlapping the visible range.

This ambitious project has a target launch date in 2018. It is planned to launch to an orbit that is beyond Earth’s moon, at a distance of about 1 million miles from Earth, so that it can get better pictures of the far reaches of the universe.  Maintaining the Hubble telescope presented a challenge at times, but astronauts did visit it as necessary over the years. It would probably be a bigger challenge to do the same for Webb, since it will be so much further away.

There’s still lots of work to do. In the meantime you can watch the real thing under construction via web-cam.  And how was it received at the conference? Well, NASA conducted right next to the model, under the stars, the world record largest astronomy lesson! As such, it officially made it into the Guinness Book of Records!

Related link:  http://jwstsite.stsci.edu/webb_telescope/behind_the_webb

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2013: 5th of 13 Things I Want to Know: Is a Badass Look a Valid Requirement for a Spacesuit?

Rumor has it, someone at SpaceX actually wrote they require a “badass” look in the spec delivered last year to Orbital Outfitters for a pressure spacesuit. I’m curious who…?
This is what a normal spec looks like (NASA, Apollo 1, April 1962):

Coming soon is a detailed article on space-suit design.

Posted in Space Exploration | Leave a comment