Jumping from the “Edge” of Space

The imagery accompanying Felix Baumgartner’s record setting jump on Sunday was both compelling in the moment, and evocative of moments gone by.

The piercing clear blue sky, and the thin,  ethereal nature of the balloon itself soon gave way to the infrared imagery of a single man plummeting through the atmosphere at a speed greater than that which most of us routinely travel through air, surrounded by the relative, if decreasing comforts of a modern jet airliner.

Fortunately, with no  Romulan ship threatening to inject red matter into Earth’s crust, after managing the free fall, the most Baumgartner had to worry about was sticking the landing on New Mexico scrubland, not a platform suspended over an alien planet. Still, Hollywood and reality merged a little closer together yesterday, and who knows, maybe they have  Red Bull in the 23rd century as well.

If anything however, the imagery, no doubt intentionally, suggested the earliest days of manned spaceflight, complete  with a single person capsule, a small mission control team, even if Capcom Joe Kittinger and Felix Baumgartner didn’t seem to have the smoothest of exchanges.

So, was this is mostly a stunt, here for a moment and then gone, like Evel Knievel attempting to “jump” the Snake River Canyon, or was it something more relevant?

Very likely it was the latter.  The jump was only barely from the “edge” of space, depending on your definition, and certainly not from orbit, even though the Discovery Channel’s revolving planet backdrop to the broadcast sometimes seemed to suggest otherwise. Also it actually fell shy of Kittinger’s free-fall time record. Nevertheless it seems likely that to some, the key elements of the experience, the capsule, the undeniably compelling view , and the sense of being in near space, will offer a plausible alternative to $50 million dollar orbital flights, just as sub-orbital flights with Xcor or Virgin Galactic will to others.   That is the concept behind zero2infinity ,  and no doubt there will soon be others.  And even though the link between balloon flights and orbital spaceflight  would seem to be tenuous at best, JP Aerospace has made measurable progress in advancing at least part of their concept of a high altitude “dark sky station”  from which giant, ultralight airships slowly accelerate to orbital velocity over a period of days.

Finally,  the imagery surrounding the Red Bull promotion also suggests a possible alternative path for orbital tourism as well. Rather than paying tens of millions to train in Russia and be crammed into a Soyuz capsule with two relative strangers,  might not some enterprising citizen explorers prefer instead essentially a recreation of the original Mercury flights,  in modern,  lightweight  (reusable) capsules?

The desire to see the homewold from space,  and to experience other aspects of spaceflight seems so strong that it will very likely find many different outlets. There is a clear analog for this. Mankind has traversed the seas since the dawn of civilization, and to some extent the advent of seaborne trade helped give rise the earliest form of what is now called “western” civilization. However, it was not until 1895 that a retired sea-captain named Joshua Slocumb took a small sloop, the Spray, on the world’s first solo circumnavigation and wrote a book about it. The book, Sailing Alone Around the World, changed nautical history, and within a few years,  the idea that individuals could manage ocean crossings took popular hold.  Where one went, hundreds  soon followed.  Now, it is a routine occurence, in vessels both large and small, and of astonishing variety.

Sunday’s jump, like Slocumb’s journey, was yet another example of the enduring value proposition not of national will,  but of the simple, unfettered individual human desire to “boldly go.” It was viewed live by roughly 8 million people, at least some of whom would no doubt like to follow.

Now, if someone, somewhere could just learn how to recover and re-use a first stage.

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