Until last Sunday, the realm known as space was considered to be above an arbitrary height of 100km.This is roughly the height at which wings alone will not provide enough lift and rockets are required if you wish to fly in any direction other than down.
Felix Baumgartner jumped, we are told by a fizzy drink manufacturer, from space on Sunday. Less hyperbolic sources put him merely at the edge of space, which is now just 39km up. No longer does space refer to the infinite cosmos outside our atmosphere, it now includes quite a lot of the atmosphere too. Space, it seems, is the height at which a camera lens can bend the horizon enough to make it look spacey.
To get a sense of just how far into space Mr Baumgartner jumped from, look at an apple and imagine it is the Earth. The height of the Stratos capsule (sponsored by Red Bull) above the surface of the apple would be about ¼ of a millimetre or the thickness of three Post-it notes.
Baumgartner became the first human to break the sound barrier using nothing but his own body and the combined gravitational force of the entire planet. We are assured by sponsors Red Bull that it wasn’t just about the records or the publicity. It was also about scientific progress. This escapade would test a new type of pressure suit in a way that could apparently never be achieved by using dummies or in laboratories.
The test had to be carried out by a human because you can’t give a world record to a test dummy. I mean, we had to see if the suit would work in real life. The new suit, we are told, might help astronauts escape from their rockets in an emergency.
When the space shuttle reaches an altitude of 45km, it is travelling at almost 5,000 kph. Baumgartner briefly reached 1,343 kph on his way down. I would recommend a bit more testing with dummies before relying on this suit too heavily.
I admire the chap’s bravery and skill, but I resent the portrayal of this Red Bull advert as a scientific feat. Nobody would have minded if they’d just said it was a stunt. They chose to call it a scientific mission for what the science label could do for them, not for what they could do for science.