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Orbital skydives to follow inflatable heatshield success?

NASA steals march on Italian space-pod parachute babes

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Orbital skydiving finally on the cards?

The IRVE inflated during ground tests. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Jump out of a perfectly good spaceship? Blow me

The fact that the IRVE remained stable into subsonic flight does suggest that such a unit could be used by a skydiver to re-enter Earth's atmosphere. Once safely slowed down, the intrepid user would use parachutes for the final landing.

However, a lot depends on just how fast one would be re-entering. The IRVE didn't quite fly straight up and fall straight down again, but it did splash down less than hundred miles from Wallops Island. It didn't even come close to achieving orbital velocity.

NASA doesn't say what the peak airspeed reached by the IRVE was as it fell, but it doesn't seem likely to have been anything like the Mach 25 experienced by spacecraft de-orbiting above Earth. The fact that NASA says the IRVE free-fell for about 2 minutes 11 seconds before seriously interacting with the atmosphere suggests not a vast amount more than Mach 5 once you add in lateral speed, explaining Wusk's desire to get a bit more serious.

The atmosphere of Mars, of course, is hugely thinner than that of Earth, so NASA may never build an inflata-shield capable of Earth re-entry. But there are others who would like to.

Spacesuit company Orbital Outfitters, for instance, have discussed plans for jumps by suitably equipped skydivers from suborbital space-tourism vehicles - and even from proper orbit. Italian aerospace firm Aero Sekur have also proposed the manufacture of insta-foam heatshields allowing orbiting astronauts to reach Earth safely using minimal amounts of kit. Having some bailout option less bulky than a Soyuz capsule could be handy for future spacecraft designers.

Aero Sekur even have some potential test space-divers lined up in the form of their company-sponsored all female parachute display team, the Shooting Stars - perhaps better known (cough) under the title "space pod parachute babes".

Apart from civil uses, there's the notion of space paratroops to be considered as well - though even Robert Heinlein, in his classic Starship Troopers, considered that the Mobile Infantry would leave the drop ship in one-man disposable capsules rather than inflating their heatshields as they fell*.

A Russian inflatable system intended for bringing down small loads from the International Space Station (ISS) has been tested several times, too, though it has been dogged by failures. NASA's Cheatwood says that this week's trial is "the first time anyone has successfully flown an inflatable reentry vehicle".

Given the limited nature of the NASA test, however, it could be a while before the first backpack re-entry skydive kits for spacesuits appear. ®

Bootnote

*He also had the MI wearing armoured suits with powered exoskeleton assistance and jet boots enabling them to leap over buildings. Personal weaponry went up to and including shoulder-fired nukes, as well as less-drastic options such as flame guns, gas and even psywar grenades.

Very little of the cool technology made it from the book to the film, presumably for budget reasons, much to the disappointment of some.

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