Skydiver's supersonic free fall tests mettle, spacesuit

Mon Oct 15, 2012 9:23pm EDT
 
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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner's supersonic plunge to Earth from the stratosphere could help determine whether space tourists should wear spacesuits similar to the one that protected him as he shattered the sound barrier.

"This wasn't just a mild penetration of the sound barrier," Baumgartner's doctor, Jonathan Clark, said on Monday as the skydiver and his crew celebrated Sunday's record-breaking dive from about 24 miles up.

"It was Mach 1.24. Our ground recovery teams on four different locations heard the sonic boom," said Clark, a former high-altitude military parachutist and NASA doctor who worked on escape systems for space shuttle astronauts.

Baumgartner jumped from an altitude of 128,097 feet over Roswell, New Mexico, reaching a peak speed of about 833 mph. The speed of sound at that altitude is about 690 mph.

His goal was to break records - highest sky dive, fastest free fall, biggest balloon to carry a person into the sky - but the feat was closely followed by doctors, engineers and scientists working to make spaceflight and high-altitude aircraft more survivable in accidents.

Clark knows the dangers firsthand. He lost his wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, when the damaged shuttle Columbia broke apart more than 200,700 feet above ground on February 1, 2003.

Before that, Clark served on a team that investigated the 1986 shuttle Challenger accident, another space disaster that claimed the lives of seven crew members.

MADE TO ORDER   Continued...