Red Bull Stratos, Balazs Gardi, Associated Press
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 his feat could someday 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 Dr. 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, Baumgartner 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," said Clark, who teaches at the Baylor College School of Medicine.
Clark said his team is still analyzing all the medical data — heart rate, blood pressure and the like — collected from sensors on Baumgartner's body.
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.
Baumgartner's technique for righting himself may prove useful for companies like Virgin Galactic that are developing spacecraft that will take tourists up into space and right back down. These enterprises will need to have some sort of emergency escape plan.
NASA's next-generation spaceship, the Orion vehicle intended for deep-space exploration, will parachute home like the old-style Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules. The lessons learned from Baumgartner's effort probably won't apply directly to the Orion design, since it will be safer for astronauts to remain in the vessel all the way back to Earth, Gohmert said.
As for the now-ended shuttle program, Columbia was traveling too high and too fast during its 2003 descent for a Baumgartner-style exit to have helped the seven astronauts. The spaceship broke apart about 40 miles up while traveling more than Mach 17, unleashing forces that tore the crew members' bodies apart.
In the 1986 Challenger disaster, the crew capsule shot out of the fireball that erupted during liftoff, but there are too many unknowns to say whether any lessons from Baumgartner's feat might have applied to that tragedy, Gohmert said.
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