CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Now that the dust has settled in the New Mexico desert where supersonic skydiver “Fearless Felix” Baumgartner landed safely on his feet, researchers are exhilarated over the possibility that his exploit someday could help save the lives of pilots and space travelers in a disaster.
Baumgartner’s death-defying jump Sunday from a balloon 24 miles above Earth yielded a wealth of information about the punishing effects of extreme speed and altitude on the human body, insights that could inform the development of improved spacesuits, new training procedures and emergency medical treatment.
A NASA engineer who specializes in astronaut escape systems said Baumgartner’s mission “gives us a good foundation” for improving the odds of survival for professional astronauts, space tourists and high-altitude pilots and passengers.
“What I would hope is that, perhaps, this is just the first step of many, many advancements to come” in emergency bailouts, said Dustin Gohmert, who heads NASA’s crew survival engineering office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In an interview after Baumgartner became the first skydiver to break the speed of sound, Gohmert noted that researchers have spent decades working on self-contained space-escape systems, with no significant advances since Joe Kittinger in 1960 jumped from 19.5 miles up and reached 614 mph, records that stood until Sunday.
Baumgartner’s feat was sponsored by energy drink maker Red Bull, and NASA had no role.
But Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who lost his wife, Laurel, in the space shuttle Columbia accident and dedicated himself to improving crew-escape systems, was in charge of Baumgartner’s medical team.
And he was thrilled at how much was learned.
By going well beyond Mach 1, or the speed of sound, Baumgartner provided even more data than anticipated.
Wearing a pressurized suit and helmet, he accelerated to an astonishing 834 mph and was supersonic longer than expected. The speed of sound at that altitude is close to 700 mph.
“It was Mach 1.24, which is really huge. I mean, that’s a much higher level than we’d ever anticipated, so we learned a lot by going faster and higher,” Clark said.
During his descent through the stratosphere, Baumgartner went into an out-of-control spin for about 40 seconds, experiencing around 2.5 G’s, or 2.5 times the force of gravity, before stabilizing himself.