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Red Bull Stratos and the risk or reentry and departure

Writer Erna Cooper on new developments thanks to Fearless Felix.

On October 14, 2012, Phenomenal Felix Baumgartner, bearing a state-of-the-art space suit provided and developed by Red Bull Stratos, took a history-making and death-defying jump, from 24 miles above the Earth.

According to MSNBC and the Associated Press journalist, Marcia Dunn, this was to “push the effects of extreme speed and altitude on the human body” and draw “insights that could inform the development of improved spacesuits, new training procedures and emergency medical treatment” after reentry and landing.

NASA engineer, Dustin Gohmert, the head of NASA’s crew survival engineering office, at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, said that “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’” (Dunn, AP), but while Baumgartner’s jump was historic and technically innovative,  its relevance to other space missions, such as the Columbia or Space Challenger disasters or to future deep space exploration, is questionable; one must take into account the specificity of needs, requirements and risk factors involved in different kinds of space missions.

Much more also needs to be understood, generally, about the science of space flight and exploration to avoid making dramatic claims or false assumptions about the past and the future, since Baumgartner’s success may offer advancements in [some types of] emergency bailouts,i it would be a false to assume (in retrospect) that the new space technology would have prevented either the Columbia disaster or the Space Challenger disaster.

Such implications get their credence from the fact that “Dr. Johnathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who lost his wife, Laurel, in the space shuttle Columbia accident . . . was in charge of Baumgartner’s medical team” (Dunn, AP). While Dr. Clark may have wished to prevent what happened to his wife from happening in the future, his motivation and dedication to his task does not mean that the technology and skill involved in Baumgartner’s success would have precluded the loss of life and causes of technical malfunction that occurred in 2003 or 1986.

I recently discussed this issue with Dr. Willam P. Barry, former US Air force pilot, NASA European Representative and current NASA Chief Historian, whom I met in 2009.  Barry was keen to point out his sensitivity to any “suggestion that the crew of Columbia would have survived if they'd been wearing the same suit when [the Shuttle] came apart on reentry in 2003”. 

“This was a claim tossed around by some media folks in the US” writes Barry, but “there is a big difference between stepping out of a gondola with zero kinetic energy (to start) and an entry from orbit at a starting speed of 8 km/second”.ii In fact, according to Michel Viso, an expert in exobiology, at the French national Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS), “if you re-enter at seven kilometres per second in a pressure suit, you will burn up, and so will your suit.”

“In contrast with Baumgartner, who leapt from a balloon,” according to French news24 contact Bernard Comet, of France’s Institute of Space Medicine and Physiology (MEDES), there are major technical and training challenges of flight ejection from outer space: “a pilot who ejected would be exposed to an extreme shock from acceleration,” said Comet, and, “as in Baumgartner’s descent, there would be the challenge of preventing a spin, which could cause a blackout.”

In the case of the 1986 Space Challenger, there were still other factors involved in the loss of human life. In that instance, “the crew capsule shot out of the fireball that erupted during liftoff” (DUNN, AP); “73 seconds into mission STS 51-L,” it was “a booster failure [that] caused an explosion that resulted in the loss of [those] seven astronauts, as well as the vehicle” and not a technical malfunction with the space suit.

Dustin Gohmert was right to point out that “there are too many unknowns to say whether any lessons from Baumgartner’s feat might have applied to that tragedy” (DUNN, AP), for the risks involved in liftoff are not equal to those of reentry – specifically, the risk and costs of rocket fuel used, at liftoff, that have led the scientific community to explore various prototypes for a space elevator.

A new book, published by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, entitled Coming Home: Reentry and Recovery from Space, makes clear distinctions between the safety mechanisms available in the new space suit design and the causes of the Columbia accident, of 2003, which entailed a technical malfunction “taking place during launch when the External Tank’s foam insulation struck the leading edge of the left wing and damaged the thermal protection system. Equally important, in the Columbia disaster, were the “managerial, organizational, and cultural issues” that had allowed these technical problems to exist and which led “the wing breech to go unchecked for the life of the Shuttle program”.

So many atmospheric and technical factors are involved in successful space flight missions, of varied natures and magnitudes: aerodynamics, thermal protection, guidance and control, stability, propulsion, and landing systems have [all] proven critical to the success of the human space flight and other space programs”.

“I'm sure that there are lessons to be learned from Baumgartner's suit that will be helpful,” in the future, notes Barry, “and I'm sure our space suit experts are looking at that”; in fact “[Baumgartner’s] suit was built by one of the companies that has been building spacesuits for NASA for a number of years”. However, it would be wrong to assume that Baumgartner’s Red Bull suit capabilities apply to the demands of every space mission. “There are certainly some overlaps, but pressure suit design is a pretty mission-specific thing – and NASA astronauts don't have any missions to jump out of high altitude balloons (at least not yet)”.

For further reading on reentry, see “Coming Home: Reentry and Recovery from Space”, published by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate: http://www.nasa.gov/connect/ebooks/coming_home_detail.html

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