Space Parachuting: Parachuting from the Edge

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. He safely touched down in barren New Mexico desert, 13 minutes 45 seconds after he vaulted into the void.

The jump was 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.

Keep Reading – Part Two

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