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Spacesuit entrepreneurs plan parachute jumps from orbit

The ultimate in high fashion

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A former Nasa flight surgeon who lost his astronaut wife in the Columbia space shuttle disaster has teamed up with a self-described "bad boy" space commentator to mount trials in which humans would descend from orbit skydiver-style.

Laurel Clark, a mission specialist, died along with her fellow crew members when the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003. But her loss didn't dent husband Jonathan's enthusiasm for the space industry - in fact, it has inspired him to develop a novel new plan for re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

The one-time Navy doc, Nasa medic and spec-ops-trained parachutist has joined swashbuckling aerospace analyst Rick Tumlinson's company, Orbital Outfitters. The men intend to develop space suits, parachutes and other accoutrements that will ultimately allow a suitably equipped human to skydive - or "space-dive" - safely to Earth from orbit.

The entrepreneurs reckon this kit will become a must-have safety feature in any spacecraft, just like lifejackets aboard ships or escape sets in submarines. They also think that space-diving might become the ultimate adrenaline sport of the future.

For now, Orbital Outfitters has a contract to supply basic pressure suits to XCOR Aerospace. XCOR is a private commercial space operation looking to develop a suborbital rocket-plane called Xerus.

Xerus crews and suborbital tourist passengers will be provided with "Industrial Sub-Orbital Space Suits" (IS-3s) from Tumlinson's firm, which will keep them safe in the event of a depressurisation. IS-3 suits will also be integrated with a parachute harness, but won't be suitable for space-diving from orbit.

One unique feature that Orbital Outfitters intends to offer is "a 'coolness' factor not present in space suits of the past".

"In fact," the company admits, "certain areas of the visual design are drawn from science fiction."

Indeed, the firm uses the title of a famous Heinlein sci-fi novel as its motto: "Have Space Suit, Will Travel." (Though, in fact, their plans are more reminiscent of Heinlein's other classic Starship Troopers, in which power-armoured "mobile infantrymen" plunged into battle from orbiting spaceships*).

To deliver the coolness, Oscar-winning Hollywood SFX man, Chris Gilman, who designed the space suits for the movie Armageddon, serves as the company's CEO.

Nothing less than, um, high fashion will do for this market, it seems.

"With billionaires funding the [new wave of space startups] and passengers paying up to $200k for a ride, safety is important,” says Tumlinson. “With these sorts of players, we intend to also make it chic.”

As for the space-diving test programme, full details have emerged in a Popular Science article to be published in the July edition. Tumlinson and Clark want to start with a record-breaking plunge from 120,000 feet by 2009. The previous highest-ever jump was from a balloon at 102,800 feet by US airforce captain Joseph Kittinger in 1960. For this sort of leap, all that's required is a pressure suit, breathing apparatus, a drogue chute to prevent uncontrolled spinning and a regular parachute for landing.

Orbital Outfitters reckon that's a piece of cake; the hard bit will be getting their test jumper up there. XCOR haven't got anything suitable ready to go. Tumlinson has a relationship with John Carmack, creator of Doom and Quake, who founded a spaceship firm called Armadillo Aerospace in 2001. Thus far, however, Carmack's ethanol rockets have ascended to only 164 feet. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' "Goddard" ship flew to 285 feet last November, but this still leaves a way to go.

Assuming they can achieve a 120,000-foot dive, the space suit makers next plan is for a 60-mile drop. This will be a lot tougher. The space-diver on that one will need a vacuum manoeuvring system to keep oriented in the early part of the descent, and will suffer 4.4 Gs of deceleration coming into the lower atmosphere. More worryingly, his or her suit will need to withstand oven-level 240 degrees-C temperatures.

But that's no problem, say the spacedive promoters. An aerosol-can-esque cold-gas system will do for steering in space, and they reckon they can make a tough enough heatproof suit. The G-forces are less than fighter pilots undergo routinely.

There is some worry, however, about transonic shockwaves that the 60-mile spacediver will experience while transitioning from 2,500mph down through the sound barrier. But Clark reckons it's pretty likely things will be OK. He says that an SR-71 "Blackbird" spy plane cracked up in 1966 while flying at more than Mach 3. The pilot - though he did black out - was fine, despite having left the plane at three times the speed of sound.

If they get that done, the spacesuit makers reckon the next thing will be a full orbital space-dive from 150 miles up and travelling at 18,000mph. There aren't any private ships even on the drawing board that could go so high and fast - even dotcom fortunes can't match the Nasa budget - so this is a long way in the future.

Just for the record, though, coming down from that sort of flight profile means 8.2 Gs and more than 1600 degrees-C. The Orbital Outfitters engineers think that a shuttlecock-shaped rigid heat shield made of carbon or fibreglass ought to do the job, although this is almost a personal re-entry vehicle rather than an actual suit: more on the lines of the capsules that Heinlein's "cap troopers" rode down in, before ditching them and parachuting the last bit.

Apparently, analysts at Nasa's famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) say the numbers are correct. Robert Manning of JPL said that he doesn't see "anything fundamentally wrong with what they’re doing ... It’s just scary as hell.”

Orbital Outfitters are looking for volunteer jumpers, apparently, though their plans aren't terribly advanced as yet and financing is uncertain. Prospective space-divers should be aware that they will probably be charged a large fee.

The PopSci writeup can be read online here

*Sadly the cool motorised armour, drop capsules, hand flamers etc didn't appear in the film. But we thought the knife-throwing lesson by Sergeant Zim was actually improved.

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