As Felix Baumgartner receives applause for breaking the sound barrier without the assistance of an aircraft, Christopher Ahearne examines the wider implications of the feat.
When Felix Baumgartner was five years old he drew a picture for his mother at school. The picture depicted Baumgartner parachuting beside a smiling sun while his whole family watched on from below. Last Sunday Baumgartner realised his childhood dream, when, floating 39 kilometres above the earth in a helium balloon, he saluted and jumped.
He hurtled through the stratosphere reaching speeds of up to 725mph, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier without an aircraft. The 10 minute jump was terrifying, especially when, as approaching the speed of sound, Baumgartner began to spin out of control. It was the danger most feared before the leap by everyone in the know. In the stratosphere there is no air resistance, so no way for Baumgartner to control how his body would be orientated -no way for him to correct the spin. If he failed to drag it under control fast enough, he would probably pass out from G forces. However at one minute thirty into the jump, there was a cheer at Stratos mission control as Felix regained control and began to descend in a controlled dive. By the time he reached the ground he had broken three world records with 8 million people watching. While it was an amazing achievement, Baumgartner’s jump had more significance than simply breaking records.
The medical officer for Baumgartner was Jonathan Clark, husband to Laurel Clark -an astronaut who died when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere in 2003. The success of Baumgartner’s jump opens up the possibility that astronauts will be able to eject from shuttles in the future if there is an emergency upon re-entry. This is a great step in an effort to improve astronaut safety but sadly it has come too late, and will not be used by NASA in the foreseeable future as, since the retirement of the shuttle program, NASA has no current initiative to launch humans into space.
Recently this point has received much media coverage due to the presence of the shuttles arriving at museums around the United States. The shuttle Endeavour will be arriving to its final resting place in California after a lifetime of service which included 25 missions and 299 days in space. Both the shuttle Discovery and Endeavour took victory laps in the USA, flying over cities attached to the back of 747s. Huge Crowds gathered to say goodbye to the shuttles which had brought excitement and inspiration to people world round. However it was quite a sad sight, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the famed astrophysicist tweeting “As retired shuttles majestically grace our cityscapes, we shed a silent tear, not for the end of an era but the absence of a new one”.
Tyson is not wrong. NASA have stopped all programs which include the launching of manned rockets and have until recently been funding Russia to keep the International Space Station supplied with resources and staff. However, NASA’s lack of adventure has long preceded this end to manned spaceflight. Since the end of the Apollo missions, human space exploration has come to somewhat of a stall. While admittedly 450 humans have made it to space since, all of these mission have been within a small distance of the earth. None have dared to match the bravery of the Apollo missions to the moon.
This is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future. When NASA was in the middle of the development of the Apollo program in the 1960’s, its budget accounted for nearly 4% of the total US budget. With the modern economic climate as it is, no government is willing to provide that kind of funding for such risky programs. As Sir Martin Rees, the astronomer royal of England outlined in a recent article, “Future expeditions to the moon and beyond will only be politically and financially viable if they are cut-price ventures, spearheaded by individuals with the right stuff of the Apollo astronauts, prepared to accept high risks – perhaps even ‘one-way tickets’ – They may be privately-funded adventurers.”
The presence of private firms in space has been an ever-more likely future for human exploration. This month saw one of the most important launches from Cape Canaveral since the retirement NASA’s shuttle program. The launch, destined for the International Space Station, marks the first time an American private sector firm have been used to resupply the space station. The CEO of the firm behind the launch, Elon Musk, has designed a range of reusable rockets to transport to lower earth orbit. Musk, however, says he also wants to take the next step. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal he claimed it possible that he could put a man on mars within ten years. While some may argue the likelihood of such a proposal, it is an exciting thought to hear from the company which is now leading the way in human space exploration.