Realistic Go-Getter

Another freefaller is Michel Fournier, a retired French parachute regiment officer. He has made some 8,000 jumps, and is the French record holder for the longest fall, from an altitude of about 37,000 feet (12,000 meters).

“I love discovering and experimenting. I’m a realistic go-getter, a little stubborn at times,”Fournier said.

Calling his effort the “Big Jump”, Fournier has assembled a team of experts to assist in strategizing his stratospheric jump from 130,000 feet (40,000 meters). Within 30 seconds of departing his pressurized basket, Fournier hopes to break the sound barrier during his plummet. Equipped with a pressurized suit and special gloves, the diver expects to thwart frigid temperatures and ultraviolet radiation.

The fall itself is to last 6 minutes and 25 seconds. It will be the first big aeronautical exploit of the third millennium, Fournier explains.

Fournier points to Jean-Francois Clervoy, a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, as “godfather of the project”. The tragic Challenger accident in 1986 and ESA’s work on its own space plane, the Hermes, are singled out by the skydiver as early motivation for his working on the Big Jump.

First plans called for the Big Jump taking place in September 2000. The French liftoff site was in the Plaine of Crau. A website about the effort explains that Michel could not jump in France because of administrative reasons. His team is now scouting for another launching site somewhere else in the world.

Skydiving Skills

he StratoQuest mission features world champion skydiver, Cheryl Stearns. She too seeks to break the Kittinger record by dropping to Earth from 130,000 feet (40,000 meters).

Stearns is no newcomer to breaking new ground in the air. A commercial airline captain on Boeing 737’s, at 13,050 skydives and climbing, she has made the most jumps of any woman in the world, with some 30 world records under her helmet.

Carried by balloon to above 99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, Stearns will wear a customized pressurized space suit. Her freefall velocity may exceed the speed of sound, heading toward Mach 1.3. Maintaining a head down position will get her through transonic, and supersonic speed regimes. But as she begins to enter heavier atmosphere, a dangerous transonic phase comes again. At this point, her skydiving skills are to be tested in order to maintain stability until parachute deployment.

The jump is tentatively set for over New Mexico, perhaps in October 2001.

Pushing the Envelope

Where is all this sky jumping headed?

First of all, high-altitude skydiving is on the cutting edge, said Mark Norman, an instructor with Freefall Adventures in Williamstown, New Jersey. “Certainly, they are challenging themselves, that’s for sure. They are definitely pushing the envelope without any shadow of a doubt,” he told

At Freefall Adventures, typical skydiving starts at around 13,500 feet (4,115 meters), Norman said, with a jumper paying $16.00 dollars for the aircraft ride. As one of the busiest centers in the world, the group handles upwards of 15,000 people a year, he said, all hankering for a minute’s worth of freefall.

Norman said that high-altitude skydivers much think safety first, with regards to oxygen and pressurization issues. “So it lends itself to a lot of difficulties and a lot of impracticalities that we don’t necessarily need to deal with in the commercial, mainstream skydiving industry,” he said.

Building a business on people swooping down from the edge of space doesn’t seem too practical at the moment, Norman said.

Drop zone: Earth

But Geoff Sheerin, team leader of the X Prize entry, the suborbital, passenger-carrying Canadian Arrow, believes what is taking place is an early form of spacediving.

“A rocket can take a spacediver to any altitude desired in just minutes, resulting in less time exposed to the dangers of vacuum and cold,” Sheerin said. “I think this will ultimately lead to suborbital vehicles being the transport of choice for spacediving. Anyone using a rocket for spacediving can demolish any balloon record ever made,” he said.

To the general public, spacediving might seem impossible, Sheerin said, as most think everything coming back from space burns up on reentry.

“If you look at the lower energies involved for suborbital flight, compared to orbital speeds, you realize that material and technology of today can turn spacediving from a suicide jump into a very survivable extreme sport,” Sheerin said.

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