Orbital Skydive = Spacecraft Escape

16 07 2010

Diagram of the jump altitude/flight profile of the SpaceDiver program. Credit: Orbital Outfitters

It looks as though something of a duel is afoot between two ventures vying to be the first to break the sky dive altitude record set by military high-altitude-balloon-jumper Colonel Joe Kittinger in 1960.  The magic number?  -A staggering altitude of 102,800 feet above the Earth’s surface.

Whoever is the first to do it will have to weather extreme cold and near-vacuum followed by intense heat and, likely, intense physical forces as the diver himself breaks the speed of sound.  And, no matter who is the first to do so, the ultimate winners may be future commercial astronauts.  Thanks to these potential attempts, the final practical outcome could be a field-tested emergency space escape method, ready in case something goes wrong during launch.

In one corner, we have private spacesuit manufacturer Orbital Outfitters founder Rick Tumlinson, who is spearheading an attempt for an orbital skydive under the name SpaceDiver.  The project began back in 2007; however, details are scarce and rumors say that the original potential diver has died with others lining up to take his place.  No word exists on recent progress.

Skydiver Felix Baumgartner, seen performing a high-altitude training jump on May 27, 2010. Credit: Red Bull Stratos

In the other corner, sponsored by Red Bull, is a more recently-announced program by Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner under the tutelage of Colonel Joe Kittinger himself.  The project is called Red Bull Stratos and as far as readily-available information would have me believe, is much closer to breaking the Kittinger record.

At least one 24,000-foot test dive has already been completed, and all press material indicates that the space dive is scheduled for later this year somewhere over North America.

So – aside from the safe return of these brave, intrepid souls, it’s my hope that these attempts generate some press, public excitement, useful data, and prove the concept for getting us future astronauts-to-be the heck out of a tumbling, malfunctioning spacecraft that would in the absence of another way down hurtle us to certain death.

I’m further excited that Red Bull is behind what amounts to an extreme space sport – what with the Rocket Racing League also getting off the ground, the 21st Century looks like it might actually live up to some of our “flying car” expectations…

The art of emergency response

24 06 2010

I spent this past weekend on a training exercise with the Nevada-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team, or NV-1 DMAT.  On a part-time, voluntary basis, I serve as a Logistics Officer for the federal emergency response team (currently under NDMS instead of FEMA), which involves monthly meetings and periodic training in preparation for deployment to the next Katrina disaster, for example.

Me training with the Nevada-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team. June 19. Credit: NV-1 DMAT

This particular Saturday, we partnered up with the FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Nevada Task Force One (NV-TF1) and spent time practicing the rapid set-up of emergency shelters (and associated electrical and communications equipment) that will be used as portable hospital rooms, triage areas, command posts, sleeping quarters for the responders, etc.

The take home message for me is that emergency response is an art, and one that must be practiced.  Familiarity with equipment is key.  It’s hard enough to set these things up in a warehouse, and it was immediately obvious that every second more proficient we became was one fewer future second spent standing in the sweltering humidity of a tropical depression in a cloud of blood-sucking insects.

In short: Be prepared.

Contingency Plans

26 02 2010

A short note, today, on something that struck me while out in the east-central Nevada project area for work:  Remote fieldwork = contingency planning.  That’s really all there is to it.  Take my latest trip this week, for example.  In our project area, we’re really off the grid.  What we call a road can at times barely qualify as a four-wheel drive trail, and most wouldn’t attempt some of our routes with a helicopter, much less a truck:

Northern Spring Valley, NV.

Chaining up to head up a mountain.

Because we’re so far from people or supplies, even more than on other projects, priority one is getting the data, plain and simple.  It’s such a high priority not only because data is valuable from a scientific perspective, but largely because it’s very expensive to obtain when you consider the cost of our time (four of us, two per vehicle), vehicle wear-and-tear, hotel rooms for the week, etc.  All of that expense is for nothing if we don’t get to our sites for the opportunity to make our measurements, download data from the instruments we have installed, and perform much-needed maintenance.

Making measurements fom a mountainside.

So, we push the envelope – that’s what we’re paid for.  It’s rough enough to reach our measurement sites on a good day with dry roads, and in winter time it takes even more finesse.  Weighing against pushing too hard, however, is the fact that the only thing more expensive than not getting the data is if you break a truck trying.  Then you’ve not only incurred the expense of lost time, (which equals lost data,) and vehicle and/or equipment repair, but now you’re paying for whoever has to come to bail you out.  If it’s the other team, then they’re not getting data, either.

We sank our 10,000lb truck up to the axles, spent an extra hour digging out, but made it.

Bearing all of this in mind, the punchline is that when we’re out there, we need to go for it.  But, we also need to have thought out our contingencies ahead of time.  If you get in trouble, help is hours away – assuming you can get word out that you need it.  You need to make sure you have what you need to tackle the unexpected.  Sometimes this amounts to little more than an extra shovel or ice-pick, (which are surprisingly versatile), and some ol’-fashioned grit and determination.  Experience to know what to expect helps, but imagination is also really handy when you get a curve ball from Mother Nature.

That’s all.  Knowing how to dance around the line between being gung-ho and being foolhardy really means knowing your capabilities and knowing how to sense when you’ve gotten yourself in farther than you can get yourself out.

That’s something I’m glad to have experienced firsthand and something I feel (and hope NASA will as well) is absolutely necessary for anyone contemplating leaving boot tracks off-world.

The prize: An instrument station. -Punchline: Know thyself, thy truck, & thy shovel.

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