I will always wonder what it was like to huddle around a shortwave radio and through the crackling static from space hear the faint beeps of the world’s first satellite — Sputnik. I also missed watching Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon and the first space shuttle take off for the stars. Those events were way before my time.
As a kid, I was fascinated with what goes on in the sky, and when NASA pulled the plug on the shuttle program I was heartbroken. Yet the privatized space race has renewed my childhood dreams to reach for the stars.
As a meteorologist, I’ve still seen many important weather and space events, but right now, if you were sitting next to me, you’d hear my foot tapping rapidly under my desk. I’m anxious for the next one: a space capsule hanging from a crane in the New Mexico desert.
It’s like the set for a George Lucas movie floating to the edge of space.
You and I will have the chance to watch a man take a leap into an unimaginable free fall from the edge of space — live.
Tuesday, I sat at work glued to the live stream of the Red Bull Stratos Mission. I watched the balloons positioned at different altitudes in the sky to test the winds, knowing that if they would just line up in a vertical straight line “we” would be go for launch.
I feel this mission was created for me because I am also a journalist and a photographer, but above all I live for taking a leap of faith — the feeling of pushing the envelope into uncharted territory.
The guy who is going to do this, Felix Baumgartner, must have that same feeling, at a level I will never reach. However, it did not stop me from feeling his pain when a gust of swirling wind kicked up and twisted the partially filled balloon that would take him to the upper end of our atmosphere. As soon as the 40-acre balloon, with skin no thicker than a dry cleaning bag, scraped the ground I knew it was over.
With each twist, you could see the wrinkles of disappointment on the face of the current record holder and “capcom” (capsule communications), Col. Joe Kittinger. He hung his head low in mission control as he told Baumgartner the disappointing news: Mission aborted.
The supersonic descent could happen as early as Sunday afternoon.
The weather plays an important role in this mission. Starting at the ground, conditions have to be very calm — winds less than 2 mph, with no precipitation or humidity and limited cloud cover. The balloon, with capsule attached, will move through the lower level of the atmosphere (the troposphere) where our day-to-day weather lives. It will climb higher than the tip of Mount Everest (5.5 miles/8.85 kilometers), drifting even higher than the cruising altitude of commercial airliners (5.6 miles/9.17 kilometers) and into the stratosphere. As he crosses the boundary layer (called the tropopause), he can expect a lot of turbulence.
The balloon will slowly drift to the edge of space at 120,000 feet (22.7 miles/36.53 kilometers). Here, “Fearless Felix” will unclip. He will roll back the door.
Then, I would assume, he will slowly step out onto something resembling an Olympic diving platform.
Below, the Earth becomes the concrete bottom of a swimming pool that he wants to land on, but not too hard. Still, he’ll be traveling fast, so despite the distance, it will not be like diving into the deep end of a pool. It will be like he is diving into the shallow end.
When he jumps, he is expected to reach the speed of sound — 690 mph (1,110 kph) — in less than 40 seconds. Like hitting the top of the water, he will begin to slow as he approaches the more dense air closer to Earth. But this will not be enough to stop him completely.
If he goes too fast or spins out of control, he has a stabilization parachute that can be deployed to slow him down. His team hopes it’s not needed. Instead, he plans to deploy his 270-square-foot (25-square-meter) main chute at an altitude of around 5,000 feet (1,524 meters).
In order to deploy this chute successfully, he will have to slow to 172 mph (277 kph). He will have a reserve parachute that will open automatically if he loses consciousness at mach speeds.
Even if everything goes as planned, it won’t. Baumgartner still will free fall at a speed that would cause you and me to pass out, and no parachute is guaranteed to work higher than 25,000 feet (7,620 meters).
It might not be the moon, but Kittinger free fell from 102,800 feet in 1960 — at the dawn of an infamous space race that captured the hearts of many. Baumgartner will attempt to break that record, a feat that boggles the mind. This is one of those monumental moments I will always remember, because there is no way I’d miss this.
Judson Jones is a meteorologist, journalist and photographer. He has freelanced with CNN for four years, covering severe weather from tornadoes to typhoons.