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Supersonic fall tests spacesuit

world Updated: Oct 17, 2012 23:11 IST

Reuters
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Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner's supersonic plunge to Earth from the stratosphere could help determine whether space tourists should wear spacesuits similar to the one that protected him as he shattered the sound barrier.

"This wasn't just a mild penetration of the sound barrier," Baumgartner's doctor, Jonathan Clark, said Monday as the skydiver and his crew celebrated Sunday's record-breaking dive from about 24 miles (39 km) up.

"It was Mach 1.24. Our ground recovery teams on four different locations heard the sonic boom," said Clark, a former high-altitude military parachutist and Nasa doctor who worked on escape systems for space shuttle astronauts.

Among those interested in data collected during Baumgartner's free fall are Nasa doctors and engineers, companies developing space taxis and the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the fledgling commercial spaceflight industry and is deciding if spacesuits should be mandatory for space tourists.

During his sky dive, Baumgartner wore a specially made suit similar to the orange pressurised flight suits that space shuttle astronauts began using after the Challenger disaster.

Until Baumgartner's jump on Sunday, the suits had never been tested in supersonic flight or certified beyond 100,000 feet (30,480 metres), the altitude that previous free fall record holder Joe Kittinger reached in 1960.

"Felix demonstrated that you can penetrate the sound barrier," Clark said. "He didn't just go transonic, he went supersonic. Going Mach 1.24 is incredible. That is so much further beyond any limit of human endurance. It's just amazing."

"If you had a breakup of a spacecraft during launch and got lofted to 130,000 feet (39,624 metres) and got out, you could survive and go through the sound barrier. Maybe it wouldn't be pretty. You might be unstable, but eventually when you got lower you would have more control," Clark said.

Future space travellers also could have an emergency drogue chute packed on their suits that would automatically deploy. For the next six months, Clark and his colleagues will be analysing data from the dive.