Scenario 1: Sport
Sixty miles up, you sit in a chair on the open deck of a small rocket, admiring the stars above, the Earth far, far below. The vacuum beyond your visor is cold, but it would boil your blood if your pressure suit failed. You give your parachute straps a reassuring pat. It's utterly silent. Just you and your fragile body, hovering alone above the Earth. "Space Diver One, you are go," crackles a voice in your ear, and you undo your harness and stand up. There's nothing for it now: You paid a lot of money for this.
You breathe deeply and leap, somersaulting into the void. The mother planet is gorgeous from up here. You barely perceive that it's rushing up toward you, and your body relaxes. You streak into the atmosphere at 2,500 miles an hour, faster than anyone's ever gone without a vehicle. The sky lightens, the stars disappear behind the blue, and a violent buffeting begins. You deploy your drogue chute for stability; an uncontrolled spin in this thin air would rip you apart. The thick lower atmosphere slows you to 120 mph-terminal velocity. After a thrilling seven-minute plummet, you pull your main chute at 3,000 feet, hands shaking, and glide in for landing. A mile away, your rocket retro-thrusts its way gently to the ground.
Scenario 2: Safety
Sixty miles up, you float easily in the cabin of a small rocket, admiring the stars above, the Earth far, far below. Suddenly, alarms sound. Space debris has pierced the ship, and it begins to break apart. In seconds, the air is gone. It´s utterly silent. Pain gathers in your face. Your tongue and eyes seem to be boiling. The captain rushes over and flips down your visor, and you feel better. Then he screams "Go!" over the radio, and pushes you toward the door. There´s nothing for it now: You don´t want to die.
You close your eyes and leap, tumbling into the abyss. The curved horizon spins wildly. You let out a scream of terror as it rushes up toward you, and then you black out. Minutes later, a sudden jerk wakes you. This must be death, you think-your flesh meeting Earth at horrible speeds. But it´s the tug of your chute deploying at 3,000 feet. You realize you´re going to be all right. You glide in, touch down, and collapse in convulsions, traumatized. Through your tears you see your friends nearby, similarly undone but alive. You spot smoke on the horizon where, a mile away, your ship returned to the ground in an angry hail of twisted metal.
For sport or safety, hurtling to Earth from space without the protective shroud of a heavily engineered space vehicle seems like sheer lunacy-a hellish descent punctuated by intense heat and terminal, well . . . splatter. But believe it or not, the physics actually works out. With a heat-resistant space suit and the right kind of chutes, such a daredevil plunge should indeed be possible. And with the right people involved, it edges into the realm of the probable.
Two veterans of the space industry are working to make the idea real. While the rest of today´s space-bound private enterprises-Richard Branson´s Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, Jeff Bezos´s Blue Origin-are fixated on getting humans to space, a company called Orbital Outfitters is working on an innovative way of bringing them back, whether it´s done purely as a sport or as an emergency backup plan in case things go awry. Rick Tumlinson, a longtime civilian space booster who founded the Space Frontier Foundation and helped launch the X Prize Foundation, and Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who has a unique understanding of the extremes of spaceflight survival-his wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, perished in the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003-have begun to develop the equipment needed to return you from the heavens without a vehicle. And we do mean "you": If you´re bold enough, Tumlinson hopes you´ll be Orbital Outfitters´s first space diver, pioneering what he calls "the most extreme sport in human history." Even if you´d never volunteer to test their prototype, you might end up benefiting anyway, because when commercial suborbital flights become commonplace, Clark thinks the suits and chutes he and Tumlinson are developing could function as the first serviceable life jackets of the spacefaring age.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.