At this moment, we're excitedly waiting for the winds to die down so that professional badass Felix Baumgartner can ride a balloon to more than 20 miles above the earth's surface, then jump out, breaking the sound barrier in the process. Watch the Red Bull space jump live here.
When I write it like that, the whole process sounds so easy. It won't be — and it will also be extremely dangerous.
Paul Bertorelli, a skydiver and editorial director over at prominent aviation blog AV Web Insider, recently penned a very in-depth article about exactly what Baumgartner will be up against up there. "If it goes bad, it could go really bad," Bertorelli writes.
To understand why it's so nuts, Bertorelli suggests we look at a similar jump done in 1960 by Joe Kittinger, who is today the Red Bull mission's capcom. Kittinger jumped at 102,000 feet (about 20,000 feet less than what Baumgartner will attempt) but with vastly inferior equipment. "Looking back on the details of that jump, you can only conclude Kittinger has a pair," Bertorelli writes. "I'm surprised he survived."
In 1960 Kittinger deployed a very clever multi-stage parachute at 18,000 feet, putting him in what's known as "drogue fall," not a true "free fall." If conditions are right our man Baumgartner will deploy his at a mere 5,000 feet.
The article goes into quite a bit of detail on how Baumgartner could accomplish this task. Kittinger jumped feet to earth, but Baumgartner could go head down:
Theoretically, the head down will allow him to reach his Mach 1 goal before reaching denser air and slowing down. (In drogue fall, Kittinger reached Mach .9.) What no one knows is if there's enough air density at that altitude for normal control inputs to be effective. Research aircraft flying at such altitudes use reaction controls to supplement or even substitute for aerodynamic control surfaces.
Obviously, this is going to be hugely dangerous.
Baumgartner may also have to contend with a shock wave, whose effects on a human body, his suit, helmet and related hardware are also unknown. Research aircraft have experienced shock-wave related control issues and Baumgartner might, too...
In a fast flat spin, as Kittinger experienced on one of his jumps, you're a passenger slowly losing consciousness. Your hands and arms, trapped in the outer circumference of a centrifuge, might as well be back on earth. Baumgartner's rig has one last fail safe: If he encounters 3.5 Gs for more than six seconds, the drogue deploys itself.
We're keeping our fingers crossed that today's jump will be a success. To Red Bull's credit, Bertorelli writes that he has heard that "Everything they could think of, they have."
Click on over to AV Web Insider for the full article. It's all pretty fascinating. And stay tuned here on Jalopnik as we await the jump.
Thanks for the tip ThunderSi!