Sunday, October 14, 2012

Free Fall at the Edge of Space: successful jump back to our home planet

A little piece of technological history was accomplished today high - very high - over the dry scrubland of New Mexico.  Felix Baumgartner, supported by the Red Bull Stratos team of scientists and technicians, was taken aloft in a helium balloon to an altitude of over 128,000 feet - 3 times the altitude of a jetliner and the highest for any human in a balloon.  He then did what he had set out to do beginning nearly seven years ago when this project started. He jumped from the capsule he was riding in to make a free fall descent in which he reached a speed in the thin outer traces of the atmosphere of 833 miles per hour, becoming the first human to break the speed of sound (without an aircraft) at 1.24 Mach.  Opening his chute at around 5,000 feet, he safely landed in the New Mexico desert and is concluding a press conference as I write this post.

Undoubtedly, this event will be the talk of many Internet circles today and will get several days worth of news coverage.  There will be talk of what scientific data was gathered by the many sensors and equipment that both Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos capsule was carrying.  And there will be those that will describe it as nothing more than a high-tech stunt, which to some degree is a valid comment, akin to why do we climb that mountain? Because it's there.  

An event like this taps into the little boy adventurer in all of us.  Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut, I watched all the space movies, had all the space models, and never missed the coverage of every launch in the U.S. space program.  Reality, though, said that being strapped into the next Apollo moon flight wasn't going to happen.  However, that didn't stop me from channeling my adventurism into something that I found equally fulfilling: an aquanaut.  And as I grew older I realized that what I was becoming involved in - the oceans and our aquatic resources - had greater consequences for myself and the planet.

So, I found myself vicariously living Baumgartner's moment in history today (beamed with spectacular clarity via live Internet feeds) but without any sense of regret whatsoever.  The same thrill that people might get by watching events like today's jump into near space, I get every time I jump beneath the waves.

Interestingly, what I saw from the video cameras perched outside of the Red Bull Stratos capsule reminded me once again of how small planet Earth is in the grand scheme of things.  How this is our home base - enclosed, encapsulated within a thin sheet of atmosphere protecting us - a truly finite ecosystem moving through the void of space.  It's all we have.

This is something that Felix Baumgartner realized as he stood on the step, looking out at the blackness of space all around him and then turning to the bright blue planet beckoning him home.  Asked by a reporter what he was thinking at that moment, Baumgartner said he thought of how small we all are.

So, congratulations to Felix, his entire crew, and to the corporate sponsors who once again proved that, as with SpaceX (the private spacecraft company supplying the International Space Station) and other companies involved in science technology ventures, non-government enterprises can often accomplish great things for science and the environment.  Ocean research needs more of that kind of commitment - funding the Aquarius undersea research lab would be a good start - as the outlays are comparatively small and the returns can be enormous and truly live saving.  

Visit the Red Bull Stratos website.    

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