Communion Of Dreams


I’d do it.
May 25, 2008, 10:41 am
Filed under: Mars, NASA, NYT, Science, Space, tech

Most everyone is paying attention to one thing scheduled to fall through the sky today.  That’s the Phoenix Mars Lander, and there’s good reason to do so: the lander is designed to come down softly near the north pole, and search the permafrost there for evidence that the planet was capable of supporting microbial life.  The problem is that NASA has had a string of failures in achieving such a soft landing on Mars in recent years.  From the AP:

The time it takes the Phoenix Mars Lander to streak through the atmosphere and set down on the dusty surface has been dubbed “the seven minutes of terror” for good reason. More than half of the world’s attempts to land on Mars have ended in failures.

“I’m a little nervous on the inside. I’m getting butterflies,” Peter Smith, principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said on the eve of the landing. “We bet the whole farm on this safe landing and we can’t do our science without this safe landing.”

And yeah, I’m as interested in this as most people, since I support pretty much any kind of space exploration, whether it is robotic or manned, governmental or private.

But what I’m most interested in today is whether another “fall through the sky” project comes off as scheduled.  That project is Le Grand Saut (The Big Leap).  From a New York Times story yesterday:

He has spent two decades and nearly $20 million in a quest to fly to the upper reaches of the atmosphere with a helium balloon, just so he can jump back to earth again. Now, Michel Fournier says, he is ready at last.

* * *

He intends to climb into the pressurized gondola of the 650-foot balloon, which resembles a giant jellyfish, and make a two-hour journey to 130,000 feet. At that altitude, almost 25 miles up, Fournier will see both the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth.

Then he plans to step out of the capsule, wearing only a special space suit and a parachute, and plunge in a mere 15 minutes, experiencing weightlessness along the way.

If successful, Fournier will fall longer, farther and faster than anyone in history. Along the way, he can accomplish other firsts, by breaking the sound barrier and records that have stood for nearly 50 years.

The record mentioned there?  A jump by Joseph Kittinger from over 102,000 feet that was part of Project Excelsior in 1960.  I’ve known about that jump pretty much my entire life, and always thought that it would be a fantastic experience.  It was one of the reasons why I decided that for a birthday a decade or so ago I was going to do a tandem jump from a perfectly good airplane from 12,000 feet, which included free-fall for over a mile.  I didn’t have the time nor money to take up skydiving as a hobby, but I could do that jump.  And it was a phenomenal experience that I have always cherished, adrenaline junkie that I am.

So, Fournier’s project?  Yeah, I’d do it.  No question.  And while I will be keeping my fingers crossed for Phoenix (figuratively speaking – I’m not actually superstitious), my real attention will be on one man doing something completely insane.

Jim Downey


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Update –

You’ve probably heard, the Phoenix lander made it down safely, and it looks like it will have a good run. Yay!

And The Grand Leap hasn’t. Delays both Sunday and Monday due to high winds, and then today the balloon designed to take Fournier up to 130,000 feet for his jump broke loose of moorings, and was found some 25 miles away. No word yet whether this will delay the project for an indefinite period.

Jim D.

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