WASHINGTON -- Everybody knows it was Neil Armstrong that took that historic one small step. But now several parachutists are aiming to take giant leaps that could lead to a new form of extreme sport - spacediving. Technology and bravado are merging to create a new breed of high-altitude hopefuls - people ready to take the fall of a lifetime. The hope is to shatter a four decades old record by freefalling from the edge of space, break the speed of sound on the way down, and live to tell about it.
Vaulting into the void
In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force took on the issue of hazards faced by flight crews bailing out from high-flying aircraft. As part of the research, Project Excelsior used a gondola-toting balloon to carry a pilot high into the stratosphere. From the end of 1959 into mid-1960, Captain Joseph Kittinger took three leaps of faith. He counted on himself, medical experts, protective gear, and a newly devised parachute system to ensure a safe and controlled descent to the ground.
On August 16, 1960, Kittinger jumped his last Excelsior jump, doing so from an air-thin height of 102,800 feet (31,334 meters). From that nearly 20 miles altitude, his tumble toward terra firma took some 4 minutes and 36 seconds. Exceeding the speed of sound during the fall, Kittinger used a small stabilizing chute before a larger, main parachute opened in the denser atmosphere.
Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger, Jr. jumps from Excelsior III balloon gondola in 1960 test, freefalling toward Earth for over 4 minutes. CREDIT: U.S. AIR FORCE
He safely touched down in barren New Mexico desert, 13 minutes 45 seconds after he vaulted into the void.
The jump set records that still stand today, among them, the highest parachute jump, the longest freefall, and the fastest speed ever attained by a human through the atmosphere. Somewhat in contention is Kittinger's use of the small parachute for stabilization during his record-setting fall. Roger Eugene Andreyev, a Russian, is touted as holding the world's free fall record of 80,325 feet (24,483 meters), made on November 1, 1962.
Spring of our intent
Now take your own jump from the 1960s to 2001.
Several individuals are after the freefall record, on the prowl to raise millions of dollars in sponsorship funds to claim the milestone.
Rodd Millner, an Australian ex-commando is putting together the "Space Jump" project. Working with a film company, Millner's balloon ride and follow-on fall would be well documented. Taking two-and-a-half hours to balloon himself up to 130,000 feet (40,000 meters), and outfitted with the latest in survival gear, Millner would high step into the stratosphere.
Hot air balloon platforms, a team of skydivers, a Lear Jet, and other aircraft are to be airborne to record Milllner's dive into the record books.
"We have involved a special team of experts across a wide range of scientific and technological areas to ensure this project is successfully conducted with optimum safety and with spectacular visual effect," said Walt Missingham, project director of Space Jump, in a group press release from Sydney, Australia.
If all remains on track, Millner plans a liftoff in March 2002, ascending from just outside Alice Springs, in the center of Australia.
Another freefaller is Michel Fournier, a retired French parachute regiment officer. He has made some 8,000 jumps, and is the French record holder for the longest fall, from an altitude of about 37,000 feet (12,000 meters).
"I love discovering and experimenting. I'm a realistic go-getter, a little stubborn at times, Fournier said.
Calling his effort the "Big Jump", Fournier has assembled a team of experts to assist in strategizing his stratospheric jump from 130,000 feet (40,000 meters). Within 30 seconds of departing his pressurized basket, Fournier hopes to break the sound barrier during his plummet. Equipped with a pressurized suit and special gloves, the diver expects to thwart frigid temperatures and ultraviolet radiation.
The fall itself is to last 6 minutes and 25 seconds. It will be the first big aeronautical exploit of the third millennium, Fournier explains.
Fournier points to Jean-Francois Clervoy, a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, as "godfather of the project". The tragic Challenger accident in 1986 and ESA's work on its own space plane, the Hermes, are singled out by the skydiver as early motivation for his working on the Big Jump.
First plans called for the Big Jump taking place in September 2000. The French liftoff site was in the Plaine of Crau. A website about the effort explains that Michel could not jump in France because of administrative reasons. His team is now scouting for another launching site somewhere else in the world.
The StratoQuest mission features world champion skydiver, Cheryl Stearns. She too seeks to break the Kittinger record by dropping to Earth from 130,000 feet (40,000 meters).
Stearns is no newcomer to breaking new ground in the air. A commercial airline captain on Boeing 737's, at 13,050 skydives and climbing, she has made the most jumps of any woman in the world, with some 30 world records under her helmet.
Carried by balloon to above 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere, Stearns will wear a customized pressurized space suit. Her freefall velocity may exceed the speed of sound, heading toward Mach 1.3. Maintaining a head down position will get her through transonic, and supersonic speed regimes. But as she begins to enter heavier atmosphere, a dangerous transonic phase comes again. At this point, her skydiving skills are to be tested in order to maintain stability until parachute deployment.
The jump is tentatively set for over New Mexico, perhaps in April 2002.
Pushing the envelope
Where is all this sky jumping headed?
First of all, high-altitude skydiving is on the cutting edge, said Mark Norman, an instructor with Freefall Adventures in Williamstown, New Jersey. "Certainly, they are challenging themselves, that's for sure. They are definitely pushing the envelope without any shadow of a doubt," he told SPACE.com.
Prior to "hitting the silk", spacediver uses balloon-like device to slow down and protect against forces during initial atmospheric entry. Credit: Canadian Arrow
At Freefall Adventures, typical skydiving starts at around 13,500 feet (4,115 meters), Norman said, with a jumper paying $16.00 dollars for the aircraft ride. As one of the busiest centers in the world, the group handles upwards of 15,000 people a year, he said, all hankering for a minute's worth of freefall
Norman said that high-altitude skydivers must think safety first, with regards to oxygen and pressurization issues. "So it lends itself to a lot of difficulties and a lot of impracticalities that we don't necessarily need to deal with in the commercial, mainstream skydiving industry," he said.
Building a business on people swooping down from the edge of space doesn't seem too practical at the moment, Norman said.
Drop zone: Earth
But Geoff Sheerin, team leader of the X Prize entry, the suborbital, passenger-carrying Canadian Arrow, believes what is taking place is an early form of spacediving.
"A rocket can take a spacediver to any altitude desired in just minutes, resulting in less time exposed to the dangers of vacuum and cold," Sheerin said. "I think this will ultimately lead to suborbital vehicles being the transport of choice for spacediving. Anyone using a rocket for spacediving can demolish any balloon record ever made," he said.
To the general public, spacediving might seem impossible, Sheerin said, as most think everything coming back from space burns up on reentry.
"If you look at the lower energies involved for suborbital flight, compared to orbital speeds, you realize that material and technology of today can turn spacediving from a suicide jump into a very survivable extreme sport," Sheerin said.