Have you wondered what it would feel like to fall to Earth from space? Well, that is exactly what Austrian Felix Baumgartner did on October 14, 2012. Technically, he did not fall from space as he was still in the stratosphere, hence the name of the project: Red Bull Stratos.
The origin of this project lies with Project Excelsior (1959-1960) which was meant to test high altitude parachutes, as well as pressure suits for high altitude aircraft and spacecraft. Captain Joe Kittinger made several successful jumps from high up in the stratosphere, reaching speeds just shy of the speed of sound.
So how was Baumgartner able to reach supersonic speeds for this jump? It has to do with the fact that at such a high altitude, air molecules are few and far between and there is little to no air resistance. Yuba College physics professor Ken Fiering says, “The maximum speed reached in free fall occurs when the force from the drag of the air is equal to the force of gravity pulling downward. The drag force depends on both the speed of the falling object and the density of the air[…]since the air is less dense at higher altitude, the falling object will reach a faster speed before the drag becomes equal to the force of gravity.”
Being at such an altitude where the air pressure is so low, Baumgartner had to wear a pressurized suit much like the ones that space shuttle crews use when they launch. This suit prevents hypoxia which is a disorder that prevents oxygen from reaching tissues and vital organs. Put simply, the positive air pressure inside the suit keeps oxygen in your blood, and lets you breath.
What does this mean for future space exploration? Put simply, it proves that private corporations like Red Bull could replace agencies like NASA in the near future. Space X, The Spaceship Company (Virgin Galactic) are also attempting to privatize space flight.
In the end some may find this jump interesting while some may not, but it is no secret that the space industry needs more people like Baumgartner and Kittinger, people that put their lives on the line to further space technology.