Monday, October 15, 2012

Bridging the Gap Between Earth and Space

Yesterday was a day for the history books. It was more than just a record-setting jump and the prototypical space jump. It also helped bridge the gap between Earth and space.

No one ever before went to an altitude of 39 kilometers and then sat there. It is a difficult place to visit. The problem is air. There is no air to breathe, not enough to support a sound wave or an airplane, but too much to permit an orbital craft. This, then, is the gap between Earth and space that prevents us from thinking of outer space as part of our neighborhood. Just seeing it on camera and seeing one person in a pressure suit within the environment there is enough to serve as an introduction. It is no longer so completely unknown.

There is one more major barrier between Earth and space, and that is a matter of speed. An object in a decaying Earth orbit can perhaps be moving as slowly as 5,000 meters per second. For someone to be able to jump from an orbital platform and land on the ground — the ultimate promise of space jumping — there must be a way to slow to a speed that permits a stable free fall in the stratosphere. Yesterday’s jump shows that 1,000 meters per second is probably slow enough. There are theories about what kind of simple lightweight device could create atmospheric braking to slow from 5,000 meters per second to 1,000 meters per second while encouraging a stable descent. After yesterday, these ideas seem that much more plausible.

The space jump was a huge media event, with more than 6 million live viewers on YouTube alone. I am sure that thousands of people who saw the jump are now inspired to attempt the same feat themselves, in spite of the obvious risks. This is not as preposterous as it might sound. The enormous expense of Felix Baumgartner’s flight was not the jump, which was fundamentally carried out using existing designs for a pressure suit and parachutes. It was the ascent that was so difficult. Engineers have been working for a generation on suborbital spacecraft designs that will eventually make this trip easier to accomplish.

Already, though, outer space doesn’t seem so far away, and that is perhaps the most important result of yesterday’s jump.