Future Tense

Space: The Final Sport Frontier

Felix Baumgartner jumped from 24 miles above Earth. Will others follow?

Austrian Felix Baumgartner has opened doors for aeronautics, sure, but also athletics.

Photo by Berhard Spoettel/AFP/Getty Images

This essay was adapted from The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, by Steven Kotler, published by New Harvest.

The balloon is a marvel, ghostly silver, as thin as a dry-cleaning bag. Partially inflated at the Roswell, N.M., launch site, it looks like an ameba dressed in haute couture. In the lower atmosphere, at full height, it rises a majestic 55 stories. In the stratosphere, pancaked by pressure, it stretches wider than a football field. And it’s the stratosphere where skydiver Felix Baumgartner is heading.

The date is Oct. 14, 2012. The plan is for Baumgartner to ride that balloon higher than anyone has ridden before—some 24 miles above the Earth. To make this possible, he wears a one-of-a kind pressure suit designed to buffer temperatures as low as 70 degrees below zero and wind speeds more than 700 miles per hour. His ultimate goal: “space diving” out of the balloon, falling back to Earth, and becoming the first human being to bareback the sound barrier—exceeding Mach 1 without aid of an engine or protection from a craft.

Conceived in 2005, the Red Bull Stratos project, as this space dive is known, began as a joint venture between the energy drink company and Baumgartner, an Austrian skydiver. The big idea is to “transcend human limits which have existed for 50 years”—that is, since Air Force pilot Joe Kittinger plunged 19 miles out of a balloon as a test procedure for “extreme high-altitude” bailouts. The big question was: Could an energy drink company and an action sports hero accomplish what a half-century of government-backed space programs could not?

But it’s not the only question. The space dive also raises queries about the future of action sports. Over the past few decades, extreme athletes have pushed progression farther and faster than ever before. In this evolutionary eye blink, more “impossible” feats have been accomplished than at any other point in human history. Thus, despite the fanfare, the most incredible thing about Stratos might be the fact that it’s actually the next logical step.

Still, it’s no small step. The technological issues are myriad, the list of catastrophic unknowns even longer. No one has any idea whether the human body can go supersonic. Will the shock waves tear Baumgartner’s body apart? Will the suit breach? Even bigger are the athletic hurdles. Normally, skydiving is sensation-rich: an exceptionally wide field of view and a full complement of air friction. But Baumgartner’s face mask narrows vision to a slit, and the suit puts four layers of thick protection between skin and sky. Instead of reacting to the air itself, flying the suit requires reacting to far subtler clues—sort of like playing a video game with a delay built in.

More alarming, in the nonexistent atmosphere of the stratosphere, falling objects have a tendency to spin—and keep spinning. If Baumgartner can’t regain control, as he once told reporters: “At a certain R.P.M. there’s only one way for the blood to leave your body, and that’s through your eyeballs.”

Under such duress, redundancy is security, so when the balloon reaches its top altitude, Mission Control runs through a 40-item checklist: “Item 26, move seat to rear of capsule; item 27, lift legs unto the door threshold.” When the list is complete, Baumgartner stands outside the capsule, on a tiny exterior step. He takes a moment to take in the view then says a few words: “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.” Next he salutes; next he leaps.

It takes him 30 seconds to reach 600 miles per hour, less than a minute to shatter 700. He just became the first human being to go supersonic. This is also when he starts spinning. But somehow, Baumgartner gets back under control. He pulls out of the spin and locks into delta position: feet down, head up, and heading home.

In total, Baumgartner’s free fall lasts four minutes and 19 seconds; his complete airtime lasts approximately 10 minutes; his top speed reaches 833.9 miles per hour—Mach 1.24. Baumgartner also takes over the records for the highest manned balloon flight and the highest altitude jump and, with 8 million watching live on YouTube broadcasting, the highest numbers of concurrent viewers.

Perhaps more interesting than these records is the deeper why. On Red Bull’s website there’s a short list of potential applications for the knowledge gained from Baumgartner’s jump: “Passenger/crew exit from space”; “development of protocols for exposure to high altitude/high acceleration”; “aid development of a new generation of ‘personal protective ensemble’ (space suit with enhanced mobility and visual clarity, parachute rig, life support system)”; and “evaluate crew survival procedures and equipment appropriate for stratospheric aircraft and suborbital vehicles.” In plainer language, experts have said that if the passengers on the space shuttle Challenger had been equipped with Baumgartner’s suit, they might have lived through their midair crackup.

Along just these lines, some six months after Baumgartner’s jump, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo powered up its engines for the first time. SpaceShipOne, you might remember, was the craft that won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. This original X Prize was a demonstration project, both proof that a private company could produce an affordable, reusable spaceship and the necessary first step in opening the space frontier. The idea behind SpaceShipTwo is the next step: tourism—taking paying customers on suborbital cruises.

And that goal is not far away. SpaceShipTwo’s flight was a test burn, the first in a series that ends with actual space flights. (Some 550 people have purchased $200,000 tickets.) According to Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, if everything goes according to plan, paying customers will go rocket man before 2015.

This is why Baumgartner’s jump is critical. We’re going to space. That’s what’s next. Within a few years, human beings will be routinely visiting low Earth orbit. In fact, Bigelow Aerospace, another private space company, is now developing an inflatable space hotel that’s scheduled for 2017 deployment. With these developments around the corner, having basic space evacuation procedures in place—including a supersonic-capable space suit—just seems to make sense.

But if you want to really talk about the adjacent possible: The combination of Baumgartner’s success and the birth of the space tourism industry means that space diving could be the next extreme sport frontier. It sounds silly, of course, but it wasn’t too long ago that surfing a 100-foot wave or free soloing Half Dome—two “impossible” feats lately accomplished—were equally ludicrous. Plus, consider the space-diving upside. Imagine giving athletes 25 miles of fall time to work with. Talk about pushing the limits of kinesthetic possibility. Despite the acrobatics involved, formation sky diving never really took off—but 25 miles is enough fall time for a team to pull off an entire aerial opera. Space ballet, anyone?

Consider, in 2003, Shane McConkey paradigm-shifted skiing when he invented the ski-BASE (that is: Ski amazing line ending in huge cliff, ski off cliff, deploy parachute). Baumgartner touched down in the desert, but sooner or later isn’t someone going to try to land on a ski slope? How long, then, until we turn the space dive into the first stage of a double ski-BASE? How long until it gets stranger than that? In other words, while Baumgartner’s triumph seems the apex of achievement, the truth might even be stranger: The space dive was merely the beginning.