Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Felix Baumgartner, Master of the Stratosphere

I'd just like to take a moment of your day to remind you that the human race has never stopped pushing the boundaries of what will kill it. If you haven't bare-knuckle boxed another species today, it's your loss.

Felix Baumgartner will soon be attempting what he hopes to be the longest fall anybody ever survived. The Austrian, who has a history of base jumping and sky diving, will be jumping out of a balloon at 120,000 feet at some point in the near but unspecified future. This according to the BBC. Baumgartner's Wikipedia page has a remarkable number of "citation needed" marks for its short length, probably indicating... something cool, I guess.

I'd never heard of the man before today, and so I'm leery of simply heaping praise upon him, but he's looking to break the sound barrier on the way down, and that is just sweet. If successful, the BBC says, he'll be the first human to do that without the aid of a machine. Here, look at this graph they made:

That old record? Made by a man named Joseph Kittinger, a member of the United States Air Force who set his record as part of Project Excelsior. His Wikipedia page also apparently requires citations. He was a POW in the Vietnam War - and is part of Baumgartner's team. I like to imagine that whenever the two men are in a room at the same time a voice in the distance yells "XTREME!"

Look at that graph again. 120,000 feet is 36.5 kilometers (thanks, BBC). The atmosphere is divided into layers, and we and almost everything else live in the troposphere, the lowermost layer, which has breathable oxygen and weather. Baumgartner will be almost three-quarters of the way through his trip by the time he punches through the tropopause and reenters what we typically think of as the atmosphere. He'll have a pressurized suit and a parachute, but Kittinger says he'll still be saying a prayer. In a slightly earlier draft of the plan, it was expected that Baumgartner would be falling for 35 seconds before breaking the sound barrier, something the human body was never intended to do.

Baumgartner (left) and Kittinger.

The only living things that exist at 120,000 feet are microbes, and it's thought they might just be in stasis. No living thing wants a piece of the stratosphere. Nobody but the humans, and very few of them.

So thanks, stratosphere skydivers. You'll make us look that much cooler when the aliens arrive and we need to present our accomplishments.

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