Red Bull Stratos: What We Learned

On October 14th, 2012, I woke up a little more excited than I normally do. I’m not much of a morning person, but that day was a little different. It was a Sunday, and Sundays are awesome, but more than that, it was the next scheduled launch window for Felix Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos team. After a previous attempt was scuttled earlier that week due to winds, their next attempt at a record-breaking jump from higher in the atmosphere than any man was going down in a few hours, and I wanted to be there to witness it as it was taking place live. Online. Because it’s the future and we can do that sort of thing now. Which is totally awesome.

Felix was attempting to break a number of records that day, one of which being the first human to break the sound barrier during a freefall. There were assumptions as to what would happen if that record was broken, but no one really knew what breaking the sound barrier would do, if anything, to the human body. One of the main reasons I was interested in this mission from a science point of view has to do with applying lessons learned from this jump into planning for any type of astronaut “escape” from space.

I was 10 when the Challenger disaster occurred. Like many schoolchildren, we had made special arrangements to watch TV in our classroom. When it happened, I don’t think any of us knew what really happened, but we knew that something went wrong. My fascination with space never wavered, but my thoughts about space being safe and “easy” to travel to were changed forever.

It was many years later when researching the Colombia disaster that I learned more about exactly what happened to the space shuttle Challenger. I was under the false assumption that the whole shuttle had “exploded” and the astronauts were killed immediately on impact. Although we’ll never know everything that happened in those final minutes with certainty, most experts agree that it is more than plausible that the astronauts not only survived the initial event, but may have survived until they hit the ocean at a very high rate of speed.

Felix is a world champion BASE jumper, helicopter pilot, balloon pilot, and kind of an overall badass. He has parachuted many, many times. If you or I were to try jumping out of a balloon at 120,000 feet, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be pretty. With that being said, there was a point after Felix had begun his freefall that I was a little nervous for him.

The air at 120,000 feet is extremely thin. There’s basically no air resistance. Once he did start to encounter more atmosphere, he started to go into an “uncontrollable” spin. I quote uncontrollable because it was a controllable spin–but only for people as experienced as Felix. It was a very helpless feeling watching him go into that spin, and there was palpable relief from Red Bull Stratos Mission Control (and his parents, watching from mission control) when he gained control of his spin.

With all this being said, NASA and other private space companies will need to think about and develop technology that controls for massive freefalls. Felix has said one of his main goals with the whole mission is to help design better spacesuits for astronauts. Companies such as Blue Origin are already working on this issue, but more work needs to continue.

So here’s what we learned:

  • The human body can survive breaking the sound barrier
  • Jumping from 120,000 feet is super hard

Whether or not you view this as a publicity stunt or something else entirely, I thought it was an extremely cool experience and a testament to the human spirit of exploration and curiosity.

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