I've noticed more and more coverage in recent months of another attempt to break the 50 year-old altitude "record" for skydiving, including this article
in the New York Times science section. Sponsored by the energy-drink maker Red Bull, the Stratos
project appears to be well-funded venture, with a team consisting of veterans from the aerospace industry including Joe Kittinger, who made the highest free-fall skydive of 102,800 feet back in 1960. (Though when Kittinger made his jump, he wasn't trying to break any records. He was doing it as part of pioneering aerospace research
in the early days of the space program.) Like this other attempt to "out-jump" Kittinger
that I previously blogged about, Red Bull is claiming that the Stratos project will provide valuable scientific data on bailout for future astronauts. After reading about this project, my BS meter was again fully pegged. I remain just as skeptical about the Red Bull science as justification for this project as I did for French sky diver Michael Fournier. The only difference is the Red Bull team is much better funded than Fournier. As I wrote previously, there really isn't much to be gained from these type of high altitude parachute jumps. In my experience working on high-performance escape systems, including participating in studies on escape systems for the hypersonic X-30 National Aerospace Plane
and the Space Shuttle, manual bailout is not a viable option for escape from high performance aircraft and/or spacecraft. Emergencies happen so fast that you would never have time to manually bailout, especially if there were multiple crew onboard. You really need some type of automated, encapsulated escape system to protect crewmembers at extreme speeds and altitudes. The military and NASA already realize this, and that is why you don't see them doing anything remotely like this anymore. Even if you could justify this project on scientific grounds, risking a person's life would not be the way to do it. The latest scientific manikins (crash dummies) built today are so sophisticated that they can provide much more physiological data than anything available when Kittinger made his jump. That's why you never see human testing of aircraft escape systems, or even less risky car crash testing, any more. I'm sure Stratos sky diver Felix Baumgartner is a very competent and courageous person, but let's not be fooled that he and his sponsors are doing it for the sake of science. Red Bull's marketing is all about adventure sports and breaking records, and to me, this looks like the ultimate marketing ploy to sell a whole sh--load of energy drink.