Thursday, September 23, 2010
Racing for the Supersonic Space Jump
Be sure to check out this fantastic piece from The Guardian which is, I think, the best profile I've read on the Red Bull Stratos project. As we've discussed a few times before, the Stratos project aims to make skydiver Felix Baumgartner the first man to break the sound barrier as he falls from the edge of space, at a height of 120,000 feet above the surface of the Earth. A jump of this type has not been successful since Joseph Kittinger made his historic and daring jump from 102,800 feet in 1960. But Baumgartner, jumping from 17,200 feet higher, will be the first man to break the sound barrier in this way.
Or will he? The Guardian tells us about another daredevil devoted to the task. He is Michel Fournier, a 66 year old former paratrooper from France, and since the 1980s he's had his sights on breaking the sound barrier with a space jump of his own. Unlike Baumgartner, there is no corporate sponsorship for Fournier, so he has invested millions of dollars on the project, all from private donations and his own pockets. Several previous attempts have been thwarted by technical difficulties, but he plans to make another attempt in the next couple of months... around the same time that Baumgartner is expected to make his jump.
I don't know him personally of course, but Felix Baumgartner seems like a pretty awesome dude, with a cool name to boot. I've followed this story for months, and I've been eagerly anticipating his jump. Even so, I wouldn't mind seeing Fournier beat him to the punch. It's sort of a David versus Goliath story... or Little Mac versus Mike Tyson, or Little Jerry versus Marcelino's bird, or Bill Paxton versus Cary Elwes (use whichever reference you like best). Except, of course, that Baumgartner is not so much an enemy as simply a better-funded competitor. And for his part, Fournier is gracious about Baumgartner's chances of beating him to the supersonic skydive: "I'll congratulate him. But you can bet that I'll do it second."
Let's just hope he can do it safely. Fournier hasn't exactly been on a shoestring budget, but he does lack the team of experts, training facilities and spare-no-expense equipment of his competition. The jump itself is extraordinarily hazardous, and no one knows for sure what will happen when a human being breaks the sound barrier with his body. But if he succeeds, even in second place, Fournier's accomplishment will be equally astounding, perhaps more so. And now we have two space jumps to anticipate!