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…

Dawn of the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut

14 05 2010

For those of you who have known me a while, who have had to endure my many rants during the last decade-and-a-half about the future and the promise of corporate space exploration, I have four words:

I told you so.

It’s with an almost electric sense of expectation that I am pleased to report a change in the tide of space exploration.  It’s a change that history has never seen before.  -With the advent of private spacecraft, (e.g., Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace,) a critical mass must be near or already achieved, because suddenly the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut has taken shape.  Companies are stepping up to provide training, and pioneers are filling out the flight suits I hope to one day wear.  It’s thrilling.

FAA approved centrifuge training. Credit: NASTAR Center

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has recently awarded safety approval to a private firm to offer astronaut training – known as the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center, it’s the first of its kind.  Their services include centrifuges, hyperbaric chambers, technical training, and custom flight simulators, and they’re state-of-the-art.

Then, there’s Starfighters, Inc. – the first company of its kind to get both the FAA and NASA’s approval to provide live suborbital training to corporate astronaut-hopefuls using a small fleet of F-104 Starfigher jet aircraft.

Suborbital flight training. Credit: Starfighters, Inc.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit applied research and development organization, has started taking advantage of these training opportunities for its own scientists to prepare for the new corporate space opportunities as they arise.  Dr. Daniel Durda, one of the first SwRI scientists to participate, says, “We’re finally arriving at the day when space scientists can conduct their research ‘in the field’ in the same way that botanists, geologists and oceanographers have been doing all along. We hope many of our fellow researchers and educators in the diverse disciplines that will benefit from frequent access to space will also get in line to fly.”

IS3 spacesuit. Credit: Orbital Outfitters

And, then there’s the Astronauts4Hire initiative – with a collection of young up-and-coming space scientists vying to get their training at the aforementioned facilities sponsored so that they too can “get in line to fly.”  They’re marketing themselves as burgeoning commercial suborbital payload specialists, the idea being that when companies/universities/etc. want to perform suborbital research using the new spacecraft around the corner, it’ll be cheaper to hire these guys than to train and certify their own staff for spaceflight.  -I think it’s a fantastic idea.  Heck, I’d be jazzed to sign up with them one day if the opportunity arose.

The market is so ripe that company Orbital Outfitters, a private spacesuit manufacturer, has formed to offer standardized “get me down” spacesuits to supply suborbital researchers.  Known as the Industrial Suborbital Spacesuit, or IS^3, the suit provides at least 30 minutes of emergency life support at at an altitude of 90 miles and offers imbedded communication equipment and biometric sensors, enhanced visibility, and can even be integrated into a parachute harness.

The future is now, and it looks like my dream of becoming a corporate astronaut is more realistic than ever.  All I have to do is find the right way to get my foot in the door…. er, airlock.

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