Space: The Final Sport Frontier

Posted: March 27, 2014 by kirisyko in SykOtic
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Austrian Felix Baumgartner has opened doors for aeronautics, sure, but also athletics


Photo by Berhard Spoettel/AFP/Getty Images

This essay was adapted from The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, by Steven Kotler, published by New Harvest.

The balloon is a marvel, ghostly silver, as thin as a dry-cleaning bag. Partially inflated at the Roswell, N.M., launch site, it looks like an ameba dressed in haute couture. In the lower atmosphere, at full height, it rises a majestic 55 stories. In the stratosphere, pancaked by pressure, it stretches wider than a football field. And it’s the stratosphere where skydiver Felix Baumgartner is heading.

The date is Oct. 14, 2012. The plan is for Baumgartner to ride that balloon higher than anyone has ridden before—some 24 miles above the Earth. To make this possible, he wears a one-of-a kind pressure suit designed to buffer temperatures as low as 70 degrees below zero and wind speeds more than 700 miles per hour. His ultimate goal: “space diving” out of the balloon, falling back to Earth, and becoming the first human being to bareback the sound barrier—exceeding Mach 1 without aid of an engine or protection from a craft.

Conceived in 2005, the Red Bull Stratos project, as this space dive is known, began as a joint venture between the energy drink company and Baumgartner, an Austrian skydiver. The big idea is to “transcend human limits which have existed for 50 years”—that is, since Air Force pilot Joe Kittinger plunged 19 miles out of a balloon as a test procedure for “extreme high-altitude” bailouts. The big question was: Could an energy drink company and an action sports hero accomplish what a half-century of government-backed space programs could not?

But it’s not the only question. The space dive also raises queries about the future of action sports. Over the past few decades, extreme athletes have pushed progression farther and faster than ever before. In this evolutionary eye blink, more “impossible” feats have been accomplished than at any other point in human history. Thus, despite the fanfare, the most incredible thing about Stratos might be the fact that it’s actually the next logical step.

Still, it’s no small step. The technological issues are myriad, the list of catastrophic unknowns even longer. No one has any idea whether the human body can go supersonic. Will the shock waves tear Baumgartner’s body apart? Will the suit breach? Even bigger are the athletic hurdles. Normally, skydiving is sensation-rich: an exceptionally wide field of view and a full complement of air friction. But Baumgartner’s face mask narrows vision to a slit, and the suit puts four layers of thick protection between skin and sky. Instead of reacting to the air itself, flying the suit requires reacting to far subtler clues—sort of like playing a video game with a delay built in.

More alarming, in the nonexistent atmosphere of the stratosphere, falling objects have a tendency to spin—and keep spinning. If Baumgartner can’t regain control, as he once told reporters: “At a certain R.P.M. there’s only one way for the blood to leave your body, and that’s through your eyeballs.”

Under such duress, redundancy is security, so when the balloon reaches its top altitude, Mission Control runs through a 40-item checklist: “Item 26, move seat to rear of capsule; item 27, lift legs unto the door threshold.” When the list is complete, Baumgartner stands outside the capsule, on a tiny exterior step. He takes a moment to take in the view then says a few words: “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.” Next he salutes; next he leaps.

It takes him 30 seconds to reach 600 miles per hour, less than a minute to shatter 700. He just became the first human being to go supersonic. This is also when he starts spinning. But somehow, Baumgartner gets back under control. He pulls out of the spin and locks into delta position: feet down, head up, and heading home.

In total, Baumgartner’s free fall lasts four minutes and 19 seconds; his complete airtime lasts approximately 10 minutes; his top speed reaches 833.9 miles per hour—Mach 1.24. Baumgartner also takes over the records for the highest manned balloon flight and the highest altitude jump and, with 8 million watching live on YouTube broadcasting, the highest numbers of concurrent viewers.

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