Space Leap of Faith

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2012 11:44 am

On Sunday, skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a high-altitude balloon and plummeted 40 kilometers back to Earth. I wanted to watch it live but missed it due to an appointment I had to keep. I heard it was heart-pounding, and Twitter went nuts over it. I wish I had seen it!

Still, my feelings on it are mixed. While I really am glad it got people excited, I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t more than a stunt. A cool stunt, but a stunt. It was plugged as a way to learn more about spacesuits and all that, but I had my doubts. Having it sponsored by a sugary caffeinated energy drink marketed to teens also made me a bit wary.

I was thinking of writing something up about it, but then my friend and space historian Amy Shira Teitel wrote an excellent piece crystallizing my thoughts, so go read her article for more in that vein (which is also mirrored on Discover Magazine’s blog The Crux).

But what I really wanted to write about was this image I saw around Twitter and Facebook:

Why do I want to write about this? Because, in a nutshell, it’s everything wrong about attitudes on our space program. If I sound a little peeved, I am. Here’s why.

This meme was started in a tweet by revulv. I suspect it was just a joke, and to be honest it’s funny enough; I smirked when I read it. But someone took that joke and added the picture, and then it got spread around. And I can tell by the comments I’m seeing people really think it’s true – this idea has been around since the Shuttle retired, and it’s unfair. It’s simply not true.

First, as Amy points out in her post, Baumgartner’s jump was a record breaker, but he wasn’t in space. Our atmosphere thins out with height, and doesn’t really have an edge where air ends and vacuum begins. Because of this, there’s an arbitrarily agreed-upon height where we say space "starts" – it’s called the Kármán line, and it’s 100 km (62 miles) above sea level. Baumgartner was less than half that high. When I talked about his jump I used the phrase "edge of space", which is probably fair. He was in a pretty good vacuum by ground standards, but in space itself he was not.

Second, he wasn’t in orbit. A lot of folks confuse being in orbit and being in space, which is understandable. When we say something is in space that means it’s just higher than that arbitrary limit. You can get there via rocket by going straight up 100 km and then back down, for example. That’s a suborbital flight.

But being in orbit is different. An orbit is where you are free-falling around the Earth. Think of it this way: in orbit the Earth is pulling you down to the surface, but you’re going fast enough sideways that you never actually hit (to paraphrase Douglas Adams: orbiting is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss). Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.

Baumgartner used a balloon to go straight up. He wasn’t in orbit.

And that’s two of the three things that bother me about that meme picture: he wasn’t in space, and he wasn’t in orbit, two things the US has rockets that can do.

Now, some people will point out that in fact the US cannot do that, at least not with people. We don’t have any rockets rated for human flight into space.

That’s true, but brings up my third point, the most important, what a lot of people don’t seem to get: you need to add the words "right now" to the end of that sentence.

We can’t launch humans into space right now. But in just a few years we’ll have that ability. In spades.

SpaceX is working on making sure their Falcon 9 rocket is human-rated for flight – even as I write these words they have a Dragon capsule berthed to the International Space Station. ATK is another. There’s also Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin (which just had a successful engine firing test), XCORR, and others. Let’s not forget Virgin Galactic, too. [Update: D’oh! Shame on me, and ironic too: I forgot to add Boeing and ULA’s work on this as well.]

Both SpaceX and ATK think they’ll be ready to take people into orbit in 2015. Virgin Galactic and XCORR may be ready to do commercial suborbital flights before that date. [Note added after posting: I want to be clear; these are not NASA programs, but some have contracts with NASA, and I’m talking about the US as a nation, not necessarily as a government space program.]

The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. We’re in the middle of what’s planned to be a five year gap where the US can’t take humans into space. Mind you, when the Apollo program shut down there was a nine year gap before we had a program to take humans to space again (with the exception of a few Saturn flights to orbit for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission; even then there was a six year gap until the Shuttle launches began).

My point? Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think. Yes, the Shuttle is retired, but to be brutally honest, while it’s an amazing machine, it could not nor would it ever be capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit. It also cost way more than promised, and couldn’t launch as often as promised. I’ve made this point before, and it’s one we need to remember. Getting to space is not easy, and if we want to do it we have to do it right.

And let’s not forget we are still throwing rovers at Mars, probes at Jupiter, and one satellite after another into Earth orbit. We’re still going into space, if by proxy. Humans won’t have to wait much longer.

We need to learn from the past and keep our eyes on the future. By looking at the past we can see by comparison things are not so bad right now; we’re just in a lull before the storm. We’ll soon have not just the capability to put humans in space, but many capabilities to do it! Space travel will be easier and cheaper than it ever has been since the dawn of the Space Age.

My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.

Image credits: Baumgartner pic via Red Bull; orbit diagram via Wikimedia Commons.

Related Posts:

History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!
Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
Debating space
Will ATK beat everyone into space?


Comments (91)

  1. Craig

    The meme author (and, perhaps, you) are making a common yet flawed conflation between the government and the country. Both Baumgartner (with your correctly observed caveats) and SpaceX are just as much a part of the American space program as NASA (the government).

    The government is just a part of society, not vice versa.

  2. Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.

    Of course your velocity down while in a circular orbit is zero by definition. I think you mean acceleration down.

  3. I smirked too when I saw that picture, but I am with you 100% Dr. Plait. It was actually frustrating yesterday when I was trying to explain to people in the office what the difference beweeen “really high altitude” and “space” is. And don’t even get me started on their horrid misconceptions about gravity, altitude, etc. were. I am sometimes amazed that people don’t even have a basic understanding of this stuff…

  4. Borisinvader

    Maybe the term “Nation” wasn’t reffering to the USA but some other countries that doesn’t have a space program. I mean, it doesn’t say “The US Space program” or “NASA”. As far as we know, this meme could be reffering to countries like Mexico or Canada.

  5. Dan

    Would it be fair to say that right now the U.S. does not have a manned space program at all? All those companies you mentioned are private industry – they’re not “official” U.S. Space Programs at all. They’re potential vendors for government space flights, but it’s not the same as the government building their own vehicles capable of launching people into orbit (or beyond.)

    If we look beyond government-sponsored flights, you’re talking about the commercialization of space; at that point there won’t be a need for a national manned space program at all.

  6. Paul Wren

    GebradenKip: Of course you are incorrect– there is a velocity vector down, or you would just fly off into space in the direction of your sideways vector. It’s just that you keep falling PAST the Earth, thanks to your sideways vector.

  7. Auroness

    When NASA says no new flights for 5 years, the person on the street wonders why? If you knew you had a 5-year gap, why not start something earlier, to have it ready so there is no gap. We all know the reason is funding. NASA doesn’t get enough money to do do parallel development, and is in frequent risk on having current development cancelled or delayed. We cannot rely on government support, and that is the true crisis. Even the next set of rockets are commercially developed, not fully government developments. The meme is not accurate, but it reflects peoples beliefs that our government doesn’t care about space. If we wait for the government to “do it right”, we will wait a long time. In a perfect world, we could build space colonies for the good of all mankind, but we don’t live in a perfect world. I would have no problem supporting “Disney Lunarland” if it meant humanity could reach the stars.

  8. I think as long as people know it’s a mere publicity stunt, there’s no harm in this kind of events. What’s even more! I think NASA and the other similar organizations can learn a lot from this kind of events (the marketing facet).
    For example: I’m from Argentina, and I have NO WAY of staying updated (in “science stuff”) unless I surf the Internet. What I’m trying to say, in my rudimentary englis, is that, maybe if a little more money is invested in worldwide publicity, more people could’ve got engaged in real space events like, for example, the Curiosity landing.
    I mean, amazing stuff is happening all the time, and we’ve to dig really deep (and often in a foreign language) to learn from it, whereas on the other side, we get bombarded by garbage TV reality shows all the time (which ironically more times than not are from the US).

  9. Tom H. Type

    Of course you’re technically correct.
    But this sort of commercialization of space travel and exploration does present some interesting questions.
    1. Is a commercial Launch provider limited to whom they are allow to contact their services. For example if SpaceX gets the U.S. launch contract, could Virgin Galactic contract with the Chinese?
    2. Are these “For Profit” cooperation legally bound to share their discoveries with the rest of the scientific community or could they chose to omit certain discoveries so they could act on themselves using their own funds?

  10. Josh

    Most people aren’t American. Nor even Russian nor Chinese. For most people, an Energy Drink company really does have a better space program. Its the Internet, more than just America.

  11. jake

    dude, i loved this all the way up until “the permanent colonization of space by human beings”, iss wiki “The station has been continuously occupied for 11 years and 349 days” in legal terms thats permanent residence. :-) we’re already there!

  12. Thom

    It’s my understanding that the guy who created the macro was, in fact, English and referring to the British space programme.

  13. Maybe I’m being pedantic, but considering all three remaining Shuttles flew in 2011, I think saying they “retired” in 2010 is not very fair. I understand that was the original plan, but it just makes the gap sound worse than it likely will be.

    Also, regarding the image, I never took “your nation” to mean the USA, I thought it was a dig at all of the other countries who’ve done even less than this. I suppose though, that my interpretation is the minority view and is only because the idea that this beats everything the USA is doing in space is so silly to me.

  14. Hephaestus


    Perhaps a better way to look at it is that an energy drink company has a cooler space program that our country does. As does an Internet billionaire, as well as an old-fashioned billionaire (with the help of a garage rocket scientist/airplane designer). It’s not that NASA isn’t doing great things, but Red Bull, Space X, and Branson/Rutan are doing the kinds of cool stuff that hooked me on science when I was a kid. Walking on the Moon – wicked cool. X-15 at Mach 6 – wicked cool. Parachuting from the edge of space – wicked cool. Getting a ride to the space station on a forty-year-old Russian rocket – about as cool has having your mom drive you to the prom in a Town and Country station wagon.

    If we want to capture the minds of young people, we need to do cool things. Curiosity was cool. When is the next time we do something like this? 2024? Yeah, that’s going to keep people tuning in. There is a big difference between what it was like in the sixties and seventies and what it’s like today. It’s not that people aren’t interested, it’s that we’re not making it interesting enough.

  15. Gus Snarp

    When one of my friends posted this on Facebook my response was: Red Bull doesn’t have a sky crane.

  16. Richard

    @Dan, no it would not be fair to say that. NASA is still training astronauts and sending them into space, even if they’re using Russian vehicles to do so. They also continue to operate a large segment of the International Space Station, and if that’s not a manned space program, I don’t know what is. On top of those existing missions, there’s also the continued development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which (as far as I’m aware), is the only vehicle currently in development designed to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit.

  17. Tara Li

    1) How long was the delay between the end of the Apollo program and the start of the Shuttle program planned to *BE* (AT the time of the end of the Apollo missions!) I seem to recall it was actually intended to be a year or two at most, and delays kept piling up.

    2) The shuttle was fairly poorly used, and over-cautiousness kept it a long way from reaching its final value. A cheap non-re-enterable fairing could have been built for cargo launches, and the focus should have stayed on having *people* learn to operate in orbit, including a passenger module for the cargo bay, and supplying parts for in-orbit assembly of a decent volume where satellites could be brought in and worked on without concern for anything dropped, as it would stay within the volume of the shell. The ETs should have been parked in orbit together, to provide structures relatively easily turned into habitats and experimentation space. We got a decent deal out of the Space Shuttle program – but it could easily have been a much much better one.

    3) Sure, getting to space is not easy. But we don’t have to get it *PERFECT*. 10 launches with a 25% failure rate gets a lot more material up than 5 *PERFECT* launches, and between the reduced cost for mass production, and the reduced costs for testing everything to hell and gone, the price per pound would go way down on that alone!

    I seriously think a solid case could be made that NASA was tasked with keeping Man *out* of Space, not putting Man into Space.

  18. If sunspot AR1593 lives up to its billing, ISS FUBAR will be sodden with excuses within the next three weeks. How much of a dipole inductor is ISS FUBAR if a huge coronal mass ejection gives Earth’s magnetosphere a world-class pranging after the hard radiation wave passes? Physical reality resists executive appetites.

  19. Tara Li

    @Richard#10 – And yet, we’re *STILL* focusing on single-launch missions. The ISS proved we could do in-orbit assembly, and with a repair bay and a space tug, we could long ago have been doing satellite repair missions. We need to focus on getting stuff up there, and *LEAVING* it up there, even after *CURRENT* uses for it are done. The *HUGE* waste of all of the progress modules sent down to burn up in the atmosphere – just *WRONG*.

  20. Perhaps we’re being a bit US-centric here? The picture doesn’t specify which country it’s talking about. I have no doubt that Red Bull does have more money to throw at projects like this than many smaller nations.

    Still, I’m glad Phil pointed out the difference between space and orbit. So many people don’t understand the difference.

  21. 13 Tara Li @Richard#10 – And yet, we’re *STILL* focusing on single-launch missions. The ISS proved we could do in-orbit assembly, and with a repair bay and a space tug, we could long ago have been doing satellite repair missions. We need to focus on getting stuff up there, and *LEAVING* it up there, even after *CURRENT* uses for it are done. The *HUGE* waste of all of the progress modules sent down to burn up in the atmosphere – just *WRONG*.

    To say nothing of all those Shuttle external tanks! Imagine if just half of them had been boosted all the way to orbit, and they’d been tweaked just a bit to allow for docking and retrofitting! The idea of re-using the tanks had been around almost from the get-go (I read a hard science fiction short story about it that was written in something like 1986), and yet they never even tried it once.

  22. Matt

    Still true for everybody who is not from the US/Russia/China.
    I’m from germany and can very well identify with that meme – although you could argue the ESA has a reasonable unmanned space program.

  23. Raymond L

    Phil, you’ll excuse me for saying this, but nowhere do you mention Boeing’s capsule in your comments here. The reason I point this out is that a) Boeing is also doing this as a commercial capsule, b) Boeing, like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada are getting government funds to build the capsule, and c) I happen to work in the building where a lot of the engineering is going on for Boeing’s capsule.

    And Boeing is looking at 2015/2016 for launch of their capsule. So don’t think this is all small companies no one has heard of before, there’s a few big players in the game as well looking at commercializing space.

  24. Horatio McSherry

    I think too much has been made on both sides about WHY Baumgartner was doing it. I just enjoyed it for what it was: Some bloke was going to jump off a bloody ledge 40km from the earth and travel faster than any human being has travelled before*.

    It was a riveting beginning to end: the two hours of anticipation; the sweaty, shaky hands when the door finally opened; the heart-stopping moments when he jumped and then when he startede spinning; the thrill of him landing back on terra firma (“GET IN!”).

    Just for the human factor, that a human being is prepared to do that is absolutely incredible and the world is a better and more beautiful place for people like him. :)

    As for figures. While 834mph is impressive; when you think about it, he was only 166mph short of 1000mph!

    *The usual “without a vehicle” small-print applies, obviously.

  25. Jed

    I think it is a matter of being imprecise or inconsistent with the little animation.
    The distinction between velocity tangential to the circular orbit and downward acceleration vs non-zero ‘sideways’ and ‘downward’ velocities is differences in the frame of reference and coordinate systems. Using a stationary point on the surface of the earth as a reference point and euclidean coordinates an object in orbit does have a non-zero velocity both ‘downward’ and to the side. If you use polar coordinates with the center of the orbit as the origin than you only get non-zero velocity in the direction of the orbit.
    I think that in the context of falling to the earth using the first coordinate system with motion measured with reference to a stationary point on the ground makes more sense for this explanation.

  26. Justin

    5. Dan wrote:
    All those companies you mentioned are private industry – they’re not “official” U.S. Space Programs at all. They’re potential vendors for government space flights, but it’s not the same as the government building their own vehicles capable of launching people into orbit (or beyond.)

    Strictly speaking, our government has never built our space vehicles. We’ve always contracted with aerospace companies to manufacture them. Boeing, North American and Douglas built the three stages of the Saturn V rocket, North American built the command module, Grumman built the lunar lander. As for the space shuttle, United Space Alliance, Thiokol/ATK built the solid rocket boosters, Lockheed Martin/Martin Marietta built the external tank, and Boeing/Rockwell built the orbiters.

  27. Other Dan

    I say that when the Red Bull people can land a robot car on Mars with a flying rocket-crane, that’s when we can start having the “who’s got a better space program” conversation.

  28. Gus Snarp

    I think Craig @ #1 makes a good point. Those private companies are part of the American space program. They always have been. The Mercury capsule was built by McDonnell Aircraft. The Apollo Command/Service Module was built by North American Aviation. The Lunar Module was built by Grumman. The role of private companies in the space program is changing, now instead of buying spacecraft and putting them on top of military rockets we’re basically renting, but private companies have always played a role in the space program.

  29. Bebop

    Let’s take this in a bit of a different direction…

    What would actually happen to an astronaut that tried to do a jump from the ISS? This is assuming, of course, that he/she could de-orbit sufficiently to make it down to the atmosphere. How long would it take someone to decelerate? Would there be any way to make that deceleration gradual enough to keep them from burning up (chutes, wings, inflatable heatshield)? Inquiring minds want to know!

  30. A marketing stunt, and not much more. NASA has nothing to be ashamed of here.

    Like I said on Twitter, “Hey space-jump guy, not bad but next time try it at 13,000 miles an hour and blindfolded.” – Mars Curiosity Rover to Baumgartner

  31. Markus

    @Craig/#1: If by “society” you mean “mankind”, that is – considering Baumgartner is Austrian and his energy drink sponsor is an Austrian company.

  32. Keith Hearn

    If you can get there via a balloon, you clearly have not left the atmosphere.

  33. TerryS.

    Phil, I usually agree with your articles, but this time I can’t. You and Amy have nitpicked this event ad nauseum. Sometimes we humans do things because it’s fun or because we can. It doesn’t always have to be about teaching science or the pursuit of higher knowledge.

    You and Amy highlight the inaccurate marketing statements (of course they’re going to be exaggerated, it’s marketing), but have failed to mention the announcers discussion of the Armstrong limit, the constant updates of outside pressure, temperature, altitude, vertical and horizontal velocity, the description of the balloon and its changing shape, and a fairly technical description of most of the equipment Felix used on his record-setting jump. And to call it a stunt – that’s just about as insulting as it can get. Motorcycles jumping cars is a stunt; spending millions of dollars researching, building, and qualifying the equipment used for this event isn’t a stunt. I really think your academic baseball cap was on way too tight for this one.

  34. Jim Cliborn

    If science and technology come from the “pit of hell” as some of our Congressional Committee on Science think, how much longer before the funding gets cut?

  35. Jeff S.

    I never fail to show the students (a) the classic New York Times headline the day after Sputnik in 1957 screaming out that the satellite is wizzing around earth at 18,000 M.P.H. ; (b) and then showing them how to calculate it for a low earth orbit, and sure enough a simple calc. shows it to be in MPH 18,000 (although we use SI units m/s).

    That animated picture kind of embodies the ideas of centripetal force and gravity for LEO.

  36. Dennis

    By the standards of the meme, several high schools would have “space programs” more effective than the country. As you said, Phil (may I call you Phil?)–good for a chuckle, but completely wrong. Like a lot of memes.

    My reaction watching things on Saturday was that this was more Evel Knievel than Alan Shepard, but, still, Evel Knievel was always entertaining to watch.

  37. MadScientist

    Anyone know someone at EADS-Astrium with news on the ATK? The last I heard there was no great interest from the EU to fund the development of a human-rated ATK. There weren’t even all that many cargo missions approved and there’s a hell of a gap between each flight. I suspect EADS isn’t getting the volume of business it was hoping for when the capsule was designed.

    I totally ignored the chat about “testing space suits” – I suspect I’m becoming deaf to bullshit in my old age. The guy wanted to break some records and that’s really it. It sure is cheaper to test suits on the ground – if you want a cold or a hot low pressure environment to test in, that’s fairly trivial to accomplish. If you want intense UV radiation as well, that’s also fairly easy to do. Increased cosmic ray exposure? Well that’s a tough one but it really has next to nothing to do with testing a suit.

  38. Jack

    Why are the first responses to this obviously tongue in cheek picture 1) anger from Americans and 2) defensiveness from others? Let’s give ourselves some credit as a society. I think most of us realize that the picture is first and foremost just a joke. I think most of us realize he wasn’t really in space. I mean, geez, everyone in the mainstream media has been drilling it into our heads even more than the science blogs. On the second point, the rest of the world outside America needs to relax a little. We do realize that the rest of the world exists. But Phil Plait is responding to Americans sharing around this silly image. He’s American, on an American blog, that is part of an American media outlet. Holy moly, we realize that the sentiment may truly apply to your country. Great. Pretty sure you weren’t the target of his rant. Which, to be clear, I think is unwarranted in the first place because it’s an obvious joke. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen any chickens actually crossing the road just for the hell of it lately either. Doesn’t mean I need to make a ranty post on the web about it.

  39. Wzrd1

    @Bebop #24, there was a bit of back burner NASA research for emergency return to Earth, but nothing very promising yet. In THEORY, it’s possible, in practice, not highly practical due to the stresses involved in atmospheric entry.

    My wife and I watched the majority of the event on Sunday, including the jump and landing. At the later points, as he was preparing to exit the capsule, we were discussing if he may have been hypoxic, as he was having difficulty following direction at some points. He may have simply been distracted though, as his faceplate was fogging, due to a faceplate heater malfunction. He also had respiratory difficulty during the freefall, which Kittinger also experienced in HIS jump.
    Perhaps there is something to learn from those difficulties for future events like this, not from a stunt standpoint, but from an emergency egress viewpoint.

    But, I’ll admit, seeing Red Bull all over the place DID give me a bit of a sour stomach. But then, I’d prefer no company or nation’s name being on a spacecraft.

  40. Peter Davey

    “To fall like Lucifer, never t0 hope again.” – although, judging from the response, there does seem to be a certain amount of “hope ” left (the last thing to emerge from Pandora’s Box).

    With regard to the “commercialisation” of space, it has been pointed out that the difference between the Chinese fleets sailing down the East African coast, and the Western fleets sailing to the Americas, was that the Chinese were sailing for reasons of prestige, not expecting a solid return on their investment, whereas at least some of the Western explorers were motivated by profit.

    This made it far easier for the Chinese government to cancel their programme of exploration, and so restrict their future, than for the Western governments.

    As students of Elizabethan history will be aware, one of Sir Francis Drake’s objectives, as a privateer, was the interception of the annual fleet travelling from South America to Spain, loaded with gold, silver, spices, and other desirable items, to help balance the Spanish budget.

    If, every year, a ship was to leave the Mare Marineris, loaded with exotic Martian jewels (of the type familiar to readers of science fiction), able to pay for the larger part of the national budget, of whichever nation, I suspect that the world-wide interest in space travel would – appropriately – reach astronomical levels.

    As it is, G Harry Stine’s “Third Industrial Revolution” demonstrates that we can gain substantial profits from Earth orbit, and the advantages it offers, without needing to reach Mars, although, as Heinlein said, “once you’re in Earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere”.

    As the saying goes: “Follow the money” – to orbit, and beyond.

  41. Bob

    I agree with Phil’s assertions completely, along with his feelings about ths stunt. One of my biggest issues with the stunt was the claim that he would achieve supersonic speeds during his descent, and the subsequent claim that he had done so. While I did not watch the event, I did see some of the coverage on the news. They had a display indicating his “estimated speed”. This is far from accurate, and apparently cannot be verified. I have not heard that anyone had any kind of radar or laser speed sensor on him during his fall. There are other reasons I question his claim. First, he stated that the pressure suit prevented him from hearing the sonic boom he created. To the best of my knowledge, pressure suits are not sound proof. In fact, pilots of the SR-71 wore pressure suits, yet they were able to easily hear noises made by the aircraft. Second, he claims that the pressure suit prevented him from feeling the shock wave that was created. I say he is completely wrong. Anyone who has seen “The Right Stuff” has some understanding of the effects of a supersonic shock wave on objects. Third, I seriously doubt that gravity alone would provide sufficient force to drive a human body (even one with a pointy cone on his head) through the pressure wave that is created as an object approaches supersonic velocity. Add in the fact that he tumbled for 30 seconds or more and the liklihood becomes even less. Also, I haven’t heard of anyone claiming to have heard his sonic boom. If he had created one it would have been audible, though certainly not as loud as one made by an aircraft.

  42. Utakata

    …there’s a man made satelite orbiting Saturn currently which has taken wonderful pictures and measurements (some documented on this site) as well sent a successful probe to its largest moon. To my understanding, no faceless energy drink multi-national is sponsoring that. So please don’t bother us until Mr. Fearless Felix is planning to parachute himself to the surface of Titan hosted by some company that sells cheese sandwhich products to kids. Then peeps can claim that NASA has some serious space program issues. Just saying.

  43. Renee Marie Jones

    Unfortunately, most people think science == mythbusters. By that measure, jumping out of a high-altitude balloon is more “science” than sending autonomous chemical laboratories to other planets.

    Maybe the next rover sent to mars should blow stuff up!

  44. Fetret

    Oh this is exciting, the first post I’m making.

    I was quite surprised (and a bit disappointed) at your reservations regarding the jump. Sure I definitely agree that it was a stunt and the medical/scientific research was tacked on to make it seem deeper than it actually is, but it was a test of human courage and some would say spirit. Sure we went higher and stayed there for longer, and had more scientifically valid reasons for doing so, but why compare one achievement to another? This jump is and should be just as exciting as anything a person decides to undertake. The fact that it is sponsored by an energy drinks company should be moot.

    They are going to use this as a promotional tool, they are going to use it to sell the drink to teenagers, but while doing so they will also show the beauties of Earth, space, flight and height to a new generation, perhaps in a way that has not been done in a long time. If this flight and jump leads to even one youngster to raising his head, looking at the heavens and the stars and dreaming big, then I think the whole program, the whole stunt, was a huge and universal success.

    I hope that you get to feel the same way. Keep your reservations about the motivations behind Red Bull sponsoring the jump, but try to look at it as a source of inspiration as well.

  45. Combat Astronomer

    Being that Felix Baumgartner is Austrian, I took that picture to imply that it was a stab at the Autrian space program. (ESA aside) I appreciate Dr. Plait’s enthusiasm when it comes to defending America’s space program, however. I just personally think this particular meme is relatively harmless.

    Speaking on the science of the jump, it looked to me that there was reasonable amounts of data detailing how much a (only one, indeed) human body can take. And while that’s not a particularly robust sample size, I would think that any scientist would take any and all the data that could be made available. Even if this was just a publicity stunt. Congrats, Herr Baumgartner!

  46. Juan

    As others have pointed, I don’t really think this meme was about the USA. I agree on all the rest.

  47. TimO

    ‘Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think.’

    Yes, sadly, they are. We are back to 1960.
    The only difference is we know that climbing out of the Earth’s gravity well and going to the Moon can be done. The only difference between Skylab and the ISS is cubic footage, and we can’t even get to it without buying a ticket from the Russians. Even the robotic planetary probes are getting gutted next.

    We have wasted the last 40 years (for manned spaceflight) and if we don’t do something soon we will have to learn how to do it all over again.

  48. Altair

    Phil, your points are valid but intentionally incomplete in order to argue your point.

    Yes, firms like SpaceX, Boeing, and SNC are all private firms working on returning America to a human launch capability. What you don’t mention is that all of those efforts are mainly being paid for by the US government. The minute that funding dries up, those companies shut down their efforts. This is without dispute. If the funding does continue, the soonest any of these firms will get a human into space is 5 more years from now. That is also indisputable.

    Political support for human space flight and private human launch in the U.S. however is VERY shaky and VERY disputable. The direction of the U.S. space program has been all over the map in the past 5 to 7 years, with billions of dollars squandered, goals established and then cancelled – all due to changing political winds and a profound lack of national will and leadership on space. Based on this track record, it is very reasonable to estimate that the odds of another American human launch system up and working by 2020 is no more than 50/50 due to the fact that very few non-military mid to long term initiatives have survived the required commitment by the American government, and there is no reason whatsoever to expect that to change.

    So please Phil, don’t pronounce that the U.S. has an assured rosy future in space. That simply isn’t true: it’s currently hanging by a thread. A thread composed of U.S. government funding and commitment – both of which is far, far from being assured.

    The future of the U.S. human spaceflight program is in near crisis – ask any serious analyst of the subject.

  49. Mark

    Why has everyone fallen for the hype of this stunt being billed as a “jump from space” or even “the edge of space”. Most definitions of space have it starting at 50 to 60 miles up, so this guy was either less than half way or just over a third of the way there. I would hardly call that the “edge”.

  50. David C.

    21. Joseph G Says in reply to Tara, about reusing Shuttle LS External Tanks

    Noticed that the idea of the External Tanks from the Shuttle Launch System (not the Shuttles themselves) being used in space has not been addressed;

    the problem is, that the orange external covering is susceptible to flaking, and in so doing would have produced orbital debris that as was found with the Shuttle Columbia, and at other times, can do considerable damage if it strikes (esp. at orbital speeds) that is why the tanks were not reused; and in the SLS, the SDLV, will not be reused; just a fact of life.
    now the original tanks were painted white, but it was found that the extra weight was better used in payload margin; so to re-purpose the tanks would have entailed more development of the external cover; and in the present economic climate, as in the past, this is not going to happen;

  51. David C.

    49. Altair Says: re future of US Human Space Flight,

    just to add my 2 pence,

    if the US Congress has it’s way, NASA will downselect to ONE provider of services in 2014; cutting funding and any non funded support to the rest; at the present it is looking like SpaceX has the inside track as it has the Dragon in space, which is fully functional, and only needs seats, computers and life support and a “proven” Launch Escape System;

    the SLS and Orion, are slipping, to the right, not as badly as Ares I / V did, but it is there none the less; as well, there is no well defined program of use for either, or funding; it is still only power points and hope, which we have seen evaporate like water in the desert before. NASA has grand plans once it is free from development of the SLS/Orion but that is at minimum 4 presidential terms away;

    and lets us not forget, that it was the Constellation Era policy to de-orbit the ISS in 2015, to fund development of the then Program of Record, and NASA was better funded then, than it is now or will be for the rest of the decade; it is looking like NASA is going to be left with the ISS post 2020, until at least 2028;

    So in finishing, I don’t see any real comfort in what NASA is doing, via the Congressional funding they are likely to get; and unless there is an uptick in the use of Commercial Space from other than US Government purchases of service, then it is going no where also.

    That is not to say that we are not on the edge of some great things technologically speaking, but Human Space Exploration BEO is not one of them; that’s why I supported from my pocketbook UWINGU, (waiting for my t-shirt :) and will be supporting next month a Fusion Rocket Engine Researcher in Alabama;

  52. Daniel J. Andrews

    Pretty sure that pic isn’t from this latest jump. It was from one of the earlier ones where he was not nearly as high. Compare the landscape in that pic to the landscape in the video footage. Earth’s curvature is so much more pronounced in the video.

    Maybe the caption should be “that awkward moment when you realize that you’ve used the wrong picture to make an already erroneous point”. ?

  53. sam

    ugh Thank you for writing this!

  54. HOLY TAKE A JOKE, Batman!! lol

  55. Andrew

    The admin of the page who published this is British. He was referring to his own country’s space program.

  56. Troy

    To call this just a stunt is insulting. It isn’t as if some yahoo jumped in a balloon with a parachute and went, “ooohweeeee.” Engineers were involved. Safety protocols were followed. They had to make a whole special balloon and capsule for the ascent.

    He wasn’t actually “In space?” Again, that just insulting. Maybe he wasn’t in space far enough satisfy previously established arbitrary standards of “in space, but he was far enough in space that he needed… a…a something to protect him for the lack of atmosphere, something from the lack of oxygen, something from the lack of pressure… a… a… a f’ing space suit! He was far enough into space that the curvature of the earth was pronounced.

    This man did what scientist are supposed to do. He added datum to the pile. In this case, a human body can exceed the sound barrier and survive. And to denigrate what he did just because it doesn’t fall in to your NASA fanboy narrative is just sour grapes.

  57. Must admit I was one of those who shared this on facebook.

    Found it wryly funny and simultaneously sad.

    Good critique here BA and I’ve shared that on fb too now.

    Yes, robot spaceprobes have delivered wonders and great science -but its not quite the same as having people land on Mars and colonise the Moon and asteroids as I’ve always hoped to see in my lifetime.

  58. Deepak

    Why you scientist folks just can’t appreciated an awe inspiring jump and applaud the person and the people behind who had the courage to do it? Why you guys need to so seriously anlayze / scrutinize every small thing in such great detail? Yes, it could be purely a marketing / advertizing strategy by RedBull and for all we know they may be least bothered about science. So what? Why can’t we clap and whistle for the guy who had the heart of steel to jump from such hieghts.

    At least Redbull didn’t propogate any wrong science or astrology during the jump program. For once, please relax and applaud the feat without getting into critical analysis.

  59. Angus

    That awkward moment when Americans see a meme and think it refers to their country, rather than the 150+ other countries in the world for which the statement is actually true…

  60. Bob_In_Wales

    “My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.”


    Having been reading this blog for a while now I get the distinct feeling that Phil is actually a little conflicted about this issue. While I’m sure the above statement is actually true, deep in his heart I know what he really wants to say is:

    “My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by AMERICANS, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.”

    There have been just too, TOO, many times when bizarre, unscientific, irrational, comments about the “need” to maintain American “leadership” in space have creapt in.

    Mind, when ex-apollo astronauts make the same comments I guess the rest of us have to just accept that it is the cultural mileau that Phil lives in and accept that is the way he feels. As for the rest of us in the rest of the world – I know Wales aint going to do it so I’m just happy for ANYBODY to do it. (Come on Dicky Branson, Yeah!)

  61. TerryS.

    @Bob. Yes, his chest pack contained instrumentation provided and used by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (the world governing body for aeronautical records) to measure his speed and altitude, as Mach 1 varies with the density of the ambient air. They are currently analyzing the data. Also, he wouldn’t hear his own sonic boom, as he is moving FASTER than the speed of sound.

  62. Igor

    The private companies now have more money than some of the nations including about 30 mega corporations have reach annual revenues of over $50 bln, exceeding the GDP levels of more than 2/3 of the countries in the world and have more cash on hand than, for example, the U.S. Treasury Department. Therefore this jump, financed by private companies, should not make an “awkward moment” to any nation.
    Second, as Phil pointed out the Red Bull Stratus project had nothing to do with the space programs, which cost much more money and would require more advanced kind of preparations.
    Third, while the jump is of course incredible (kudos to the guy), and yes they had to use science to do it, the Stratus project has little practical use to the rest of the world.
    And finally, while paying attention to the private race of commercializing the air-space, why not to discuss the amazing work that current astronauts are performing now. Even though the science impact is quiet low for the manned space flights, at least we learn something more besides commercial development of the high-altitude suits that can withstand the super-sonic speed flights.

  63. Mark

    First, it is precisely “stunts” like this one, like the “stunt” that put a man on the moon in less than a decade, that have the potential to inspire young people to dream big dreams. You Phil, of all people, should know this. This “stunt” racked up the largest Youtube audience in history. What’s the largest demographic using Youtube?

    Second, @Bob#41, you don’t need radar or laser or any other type of sensor to confirm speed. We know how high he was when he jumped and we know how long it took him to fall–get it?

    And you can’t get your science about supersonic shock waves from a movie. The reason shockwaves have the potential to damage aircraft is (in part) because the stiffness of the outer skin transmits forces very well to the inner structure. The danger comes if the structure begins to vibrate in tune with the frequency of the shockwave. If the amplitude of the structural vibration becomes great enough the structure will fail. A human in a spacesuit has no stiff outer shell to transmit the vibrations of the shockwave to the inner structure (his bones), therefore a shockwave has little chance of causing structural damage of the kind dramatized in the movies.

  64. @58. Deepak :

    Why you scientist folks just can’t appreciated an awe inspiring jump and applaud the person and the people behind who had the courage to do it?

    You think we don’t appreciate it? :roll:

    Really? Why?

    Why you guys need to so seriously anlayze / scrutinize every small thing in such great detail?

    Maybe some of us find it fasciating and feel it adds to our understanding and enjoyment – i.e. for fun! 😉

    For once, please relax and applaud the feat without getting into critical analysis.

    Hey maybe some of us did that first already – then we moved on to a bit of analysis adding to the appreciation and understanding of Felix’es feat! Not our fault if you haven’t caught up yet! 😛

  65. Bob

    TerryS: Yes, you are correct in stating that he would not have heard his own sonic boom, but those on the ground would have, and I have not read any reports of anyone claiming that they did.

    Mark: Yes, you do need some kind of measuring device to determine the speed of an object. Knowing how far he fell and how long it took will only allow you to determine his average speed. Using a formula based on the pull of gravity cannot allow you to come even close, as it is impossible to take into account the effects of the drag caused by his tumbling and the best case drag coefficient of the pressure suit he was wearing.

    I never stated that he would have suffered damage from the shock wave, but that he would have felt it. As a matter of fact, he should have felt two shock waves; one as he exceeded the speed of sound, and a second as slowed down.

    I don’t get my science from movies, but the depiction of the effects of “breaking through the sound barrier” in “The Right Stuff” were fairly accurately depicted according to Chuck Yeager.

  66. Why?

    Why u so serious?

  67. Yea, yea. Good point. But despite the accuracy of your opinion it is still only opinion and so was this image. But this imaged was created to primarily expresses a political opinion that demonstrates how a single corporation and subsequently privatized profit driven interests are slowly becoming more important to space exploration than government interests.

    So who will travel to the stars first? The Ferengi Alliance sponsored by Red Bull or Starfleet publicly funded by the tax payers of The Federation? As a Star Trek fan only, I believe this is the greatest mistake our children and grandchildren will be forced to correct.

    So maybe the deprecation of NASA steamed you a little, but you have blatantly ignored the obviously partisan consequences to the progress of science in arguments of short term profits verse long term objectives…

    What have companies like Red Bull or Apple done for the world? Make our energy drinks and cell phones sexy… I don’t want people like Richard Branson ultimately deciding who goes into space and who doesn’t….

  68. Duplicate, please delete. My apologies.

  69. Woody Tanaka

    I disagree with your view regarding these companies. If they all upped and moved to Canada or Mexico or China, the US couldn’t say squat. All that’ll happen if these companies do what they’re saying they’re going to do is that an energy drink and a half dozen private concerns who are not answerable to anyone will have better manned space programs than the US.

    But, they’ll always be plenty of money to go murder Muslims overseas and to engineer massive transfers of wealth from poor people into the pockets of billionaires through tax cuts.

  70. I heard ya about the popular misconceptions, Phil.

    A couple of years ago, in an impromptu discussion on one of an MMO’s chat channels, I came across someone who believed that in space you don’t accelerate — I couldn’t pin him down on specifics, but he seemed to feel that because there was no air friction and “no gravity” in space, that therefore your spacecraft wouldn’t have any inertia, either.

    I gotta wonder what he thinks “mission delta-V budgets” are for, in that case.

  71. Andrew Wilson

    While agree that it’s absurd to discount the progress of spaceflight in the US, I have to argue that to dismiss what Red Bull has done is completely unfair. The David Clarke Company (American makers of fine space suits since 1941) used Baumgartner as a test bed for their latest ideas in high altitude protection. Their long range goal (currently in early prototype phases) is to create a suit that can bring people back from orbital space. DCC used information gathered from the Kittenger jump in the development of protective gear for NASA and the USAF, and what they learned today will no doubt be used to provide some of the companies you mentioned with better equipment going forward. DCC competitors Orbital Outfitters believe that so much useful information can be gained from these type of jumps that they are working to design a test platform to do them regularly. With the eventual goal of making it as common as other forms of skydiving.

  72. Number 6

    I don’t know if Red Bull is the proper sponsor for this….It’s anxiety-provoking and stessful heading up almost 1/2 the way into space….a person does not need a drink to help them stay awake for that….instead, they need a directive from that know-it-all in the movie, “2001 — A Space Odyssey”, HAL 9000. He’d say: “Take a stress pill.”

    Better sponsor: the manufacturer of Valium?

  73. Chris Greene

    @Paul Wren

    No, GebradenKip is correct. The position vector is [cos(t), sin(t)] (and the ‘down’ vector is -[sin(t), cos(t)], pointing back to earth). The velocity vector is thus [-sin(t), cos(t)]. The projection onto the down vector is simply -(-cos(t)*sin(t)+sin(t)*cos(t)). This is zero.

  74. Paethon

    This “meme” clearly refers to Austria. RedBull is an Austrian Company, Felix Baumgartner is an Austrian and that whole event was the biggest media spectacle here in Austria for the last years (over 1/3 of the population watched it on TV and public television reported on it for hours non-stop).

    So I am sorry to say this to you, but it seems you have fallen into a common trap of U.S. citizens in thinking that every utterance spoken HAS to revolve around them.

  75. thetentman

    OK this was impressive but would have been more so if he had landed in the Niagra River, gone over the Falls and had the Maid of the Mist pick him up.

  76. James

    That meme is certainly true of us in the UK – the only country to develope AND THEN ABANDON orbital launcing capability

    (Prospero X-3 is still in a stable orbit and functioning)

  77. Daniel J. Andrews

    Second, @Bob#41, you don’t need radar or laser or any other type of sensor to confirm speed. We know how high he was when he jumped and we know how long it took him to fall–get it?

    Mark, he did have some measuring device on him. Bob is correct. One of the video angles shows his speed as it increases.

    Re: my previous comment–the meme picture is not from this jump. I compared the two pics, and in his latest jump, his gloves are black, not white as in the meme pic (not that you need to use that as the background is substantially different too).

    @ the tentman—nah, anyone can go over the falls. Instead, he should have landed on a tightrope on the Canadian side and then walked across the falls to the US.

  78. Josh Andrews

    Isn’t Virgin Galactic (being part of the British multinational Virgin Group) technically part of the British “space program”.

  79. Gunnar

    @Larian Laquella, #3

    I smirked too when I saw that picture, but I am with you 100% Dr. Plait. It was actually frustrating yesterday when I was trying to explain to people in the office what the difference beweeen “really high altitude” and “space” is. And don’t even get me started on their horrid misconceptions about gravity, altitude, etc. were. I am sometimes amazed that people don’t even have a basic understanding of this stuff…

    I, too am often amused and frustrated at how little some of my friends understand basic science. I had a good friend years ago who thought that the gravity we experience on the surface of the earth is somehow due to the fact that our planet has an atmosphere, and that it abruptly goes to zero once we ascend above it. He was surprised to learn that astronauts would experience any gravity on the Moon. He thought, “how could the moon have gravity when it has no air?” He also failed to understand why so much heat was generated by space capsules reentering the atmosphere at high velocities. “You blow on things to cool them, right? Thus the harder you blow on them (or the faster they move through the air), the greater should be the cooling effect, right?” He finally decided that at high velocities, solid, but tiny, dust particles in the air hitting the rentry vehicle must produce enough frictional heat to overcome the “cooling effect” of rapid passage through the air!

  80. Gunnar

    Reading my last post reminded me of an early Superman comic book I once read in which Superman had to fly Lois Lane at very high speed somewhere or other. He constructed a protective, transparent shell to carry her in to protect her from being frozen to death due to the super speed contact with the air they were flying through! What an amazing mis-understanding of “wind chill factor!”

  81. Rift

    This was a mere stunt, didn’t whistle or shout for the guy, didn’t watch, don’t care. Same category as Evil Keneval jumping the Snake River Canyon. Yawn.

    Are you SERIOUSLY comparing this to the moon landings???

    I doubt seriously he broke the sound barrier, terminal velocity would have stopped him from traveling faster than sound.

  82. Gunnar


    Terminal velocity is determined by air resistance and varies according to the density of the air one is falling through, which in turn varies with altitude. Obviously, terminal velocity would be very much higher when falling through the near vacuum at 120,000 feet, and could very easily exceed the speed of sound at or near that altitude. By my calculations, the initial acceleration of a falling body would be between 31.7 and 31.8 feet per second squared, which is not much less that the 32.2 feet per second squared (1 g) we experience on the earth’s surface. The speed of sound is in the neighborhood of 760 mph at sea level, and is somewhat less than that at high altitudes (due to the lower temperature there).

    Neglecting air resistance (which would be very low at that altitude, anyway) it would only take aproscimately 35 seconds or so to reach 760 mph after jumping, and he would have fallen only 20,000 feet by the time he reached that velocity, which is still 100,000 feet up, where the air is still very thin, compared to sea level. According to his blog, he passed the speed of sound 33 seconds after beginning his fall, which makes sense when you realize that the speed of sound at that altitude is less than at sea level (somewhere in the neighborhood of 670 to 680 mph IIRC correctly, or maybe even a bit less). 33 seconds of acceleration at 31.7 feet per second squared would give him a velocity of 713 mph. That his velocity was actually somewhat less than that after 33 seconds also makes sense, since at that high velocity, the atmospheric drag would begin to become noticeable even at that high altitude, and would have slowed his acceleration rate somewhat.

    So, in summary, given the acceleration due to the earth’s gravity and the thinness of the air at his jumping altitude, it is entirely believable that he could have reached the maximum velocity he claimed before hitting the denser altitude near sea level and deploying his parachute.

  83. Gunnar

    Check out this nifty NASA website. It features a nifty calculator for determining terminal velocities at various altitudes. You will quickly see that while terminal velocity for a 150 lb (man sized) object with a cross sectional area of 5 sq feet and a coefficient of drag of 0.7 is only about 189 ft/sec (130 mph) at sea level, Baumgartner fell through altitudes where the terminal velocity greatly exceeds the speed of sound. Remember, terminal velocity is merely the velocity at which the drag force (which varies as the square of the velocity and with the density of the air through which one is falling) equals the weight of the falling object.

  84. James

    I’ve been a little curious about that “speed of sound” thing – do they mean he exceeded the sea level speed of sound, or that he exceeded the local speed of sound?

    Don’t Mach numbers cease to make sense somewhere around the altitute He jumped from?

  85. Gunnar

    @James #85

    I’m sure they meant the “local speed of sound” at high altitude, which is certainly less than the speed of sound at sea level, but since his top speed during the fall was more than 800 mph, he clearly exceeded the speed of sound, even if referring to the sea level speed of sound.

  86. Mathew

    You know, I think this meme actually started in Australia not the US. It’s completely true in that case.

  87. Sili

    Sorry, but the leap of faith is 128 km.

  88. Phil,
    You basically channeled this post from my blog back in March:

    Well said!

    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, TX


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