Skydiver's supersonic free fall tests mettle, spacesuit
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner's supersonic plunge to Earth from the stratosphere could help determine whether space tourists should wear spacesuits similar to the one that protected him as he shattered the sound barrier.
"This wasn't just a mild penetration of the sound barrier," Baumgartner's doctor, Jonathan Clark, said on Monday as the skydiver and his crew celebrated Sunday's record-breaking dive from about 24 miles up.
"It was Mach 1.24. Our ground recovery teams on four different locations heard the sonic boom," said Clark, a former high-altitude military parachutist and NASA doctor who worked on escape systems for space shuttle astronauts.
Baumgartner jumped from an altitude of 128,097 feet over Roswell, New Mexico, reaching a peak speed of about 833 mph. The speed of sound at that altitude is about 690 mph.
His goal was to break records - highest sky dive, fastest free fall, biggest balloon to carry a person into the sky - but the feat was closely followed by doctors, engineers and scientists working to make spaceflight and high-altitude aircraft more survivable in accidents.
Clark knows the dangers firsthand. He lost his wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, when the damaged shuttle Columbia broke apart more than 200,700 feet above ground on February 1, 2003.
Before that, Clark served on a team that investigated the 1986 shuttle Challenger accident, another space disaster that claimed the lives of seven crew members.
MADE TO ORDER
Among those interested in data collected during Baumgartner's free fall are NASA doctors and engineers, companies developing space taxis and the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the fledgling commercial spaceflight industry and is deciding if spacesuits should be mandatory for space tourists.
During his sky dive, Baumgartner wore a specially made suit similar to the orange pressurized flight suits that space shuttle astronauts began using after the Challenger disaster.
Until Baumgartner's jump on Sunday, the suits had never been tested in supersonic flight or certified beyond 100,000 feet, the altitude that previous free-fall record holder Joe Kittinger reached in 1960.
"Felix demonstrated that you can penetrate the sound barrier," Clark said. "He didn't just go transonic, he went supersonic. Going Mach 1.24 is incredible. That is so much further beyond any limit of human endurance. It's just amazing."
"If you had a breakup of a spacecraft during launch and got lofted to 130,000 feet and got out, you could survive and go through the sound barrier. Maybe it wouldn't be pretty. You might be unstable, but eventually when you got lower you would have more control," Clark said.
Future space travelers also could have an emergency drogue chute packed on their suits that would automatically deploy.
"In our case, we wanted to go fast, so to break the sound barrier we didn't want to use a drogue chute. But if you had a drogue chute, you would go slower, and you would be much more stable and less likely to go into a flat spin," Clark said.
Sealed inside his pressurized suit, Baumgartner did not feel himself going through the sound barrier, the skydiver told reporters after landing on Sunday.
"It was like swimming without touching the water. I was fighting all the way down to regain control," he said.
"I had a lot of pressure in my head, but I didn't feel like I was passing out. I felt like I could handle it."
Doctors were not sure what blasting through the sound barrier would do to the human body. In addition to going into an uncontrollable spin and possibly losing consciousness or worse, Baumgartner's supersonic body could have triggered dangerous shock waves that may have collided with the force of an explosion.
"I'd love to give a special one-finger salute to all those who said he was going to come apart when he went supersonic," quipped Kittinger, who served as an adviser on the project.
For the next six months or so, Clark and his colleagues will be analyzing data from the dive.
"Just the physiologic monitoring system that Felix wore generated 50 million data points," Clark said. "We have a massive amount of data to go through."
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Jim Loney)
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