No Felix Baumgartner Absolutely Did NOT Jump From “Space”

October 24th, 2012
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Last week sky diver Felix Baumgartner jumped from an altitude of 128,177 feet from a high altitude balloon, breaking the record for the highest altitude jump, which had stood since the 1960′s.   The jump was sponsored by Red Bull as part of the “Red Bull Stratos” project.

To be perfectly frank, it was a publicity stunt and it worked quite well in that regard.   I have no problem with that, and if it did inspire some additional interest in the physiological effects of high altitudes or the technical capabilities of high altitude ballooning, then that’s all well and good.   I doubt that there will be any really compelling scientific data from the event, but there might be some interesting information gathered.  If nothing else, it does push the capabilities of flight, which is always worth doing.

But there is one thing that bothers me:  It has repeatedly been stated that he jumped from “space”  Some call it “near space” and others “near the edge of space.”   In fact, high altitude ballooning now seems to be using these terms to pretend it is equivalent to actual space flight.   It’s not.

Gas filled balloons can reach the upper atmosphere, but they can’t reach space.  They depend on the buoyancy of their gas displacing atmosphere.  As such, they can never actually go above the earth’s atmosphere.  They may be able to reach altitudes above 99% of air molecules, but that is not space.

What is space, then?   That depends on what definition you choose to use.  There is no single bright line that indicates where space starts.  The atmosphere tapers off slowly and even in outer space, there are gas molecules floating around in a *near* perfect vacuum.   But regardless of the definition, whether you use the US Air Force’s arbitrary altitude of 50 statute miles, The Kármán line or the lowest practical altitude at which a satellite can maintain a stable orbit, it is much much higher than what any balloon can reach.

By any accepted definition:

  • If an air-breathing jet engine can function, you are not in space.
  • If you can remain aloft using aerodynamic lift, you are not in space
  • If you can get there using the buoyancy of a lightweight gas, you are not in space

For reference:

(and sorry to the rest of the world who prefer to think in Metric units.  Feet is still the standard, in most circumstances at least, for reporting altitude in aviation.  Hence, I shall use feet, conforming to the most widely used international convention.)

1,000-5,000 feet: Standard operating altitude for most general aviation aircraft

10,000 feet: Above this altitude, supplemental oxygen becomes a concern for unpressurized aircraft.  Of course, it’s not a single bright line where it is needed, and regulations may allow flights up to 12,500 feet without supplemental oxygen, but as altitude increases the danger of hypoxia becomes more acute.

12,5000 feet: Supplemental oxygen is mandated for flight crew above this altitude, if an aircraft is unpressurized.

14,000 feet: All occupants of an unpressurized aircraft must be provided with supplemental oxygen.

20,000 – 25,000 feet: Altitude that passenger jets fly at for short regional flights.   It is bellow the most efficient altitude for cruising, but if the flight is short, it’s not worth going much higher.

29,000 – 43,000 feet: Normal cruising altitude for passenger jet aircraft.   This is approximate and the actual altitude depends on a number of factors, including the wind conditions at altitudes, the duration of the flight and so on.

56,000 feet: The cruising altitude of the Concorde.

70,000 feet: Approximate service ceiling for the U-2.

85,000 feet: Approximate service ceiling of the SR-71.

96,863 feet: Altitude record for stable flight by a non-rocket winged aircraft.  This was achieved in 2001 by a NASA solar-electric aircraft.   The aircraft was unmanned and built to be extremely lightweight with a very large wingspan, in order to allow such extreme altitudes to be reached.

107,800 feet: Previous official record for a manned parachute jump from a balloon, set by Joseph Kittinger during the US Air Force’s Project Excelsior in 1960.

123,500 feet: Highest manned balloon flight and parachute descent prior to Felix Baumgartner’s October 14 jump. In 1966, Nick Piantanida, an amateur skydiver from the United States reached this altitude in a gas-filled balloon. He was attempting to break the previous record for the highest sky dive. However, he was unable to disconnect his oxygen regulator from the balloons gondola and was forced to detach the balloons gondola and parachute down from within the gondola.

Because he did not pilot his aircraft to the ground, his altitude record was not recognized and because he did not leave the gondola, his parachute descent record was not recognized.

(Personally, I find this notion absurd. The highest altitude record is the highest altitude reached by anyone period. Whether they actually brought the aircraft down is a very stupid technicality. If you go higher than anyone else, you get the record. Similarly, the land speed record should be the fastest recorded speed on land, not the fastest speed by some self-appointed body’s stupid bi-directional protocol.)

123,520 feet: World record for altitude achieved by a manned air-breathing jet aircraft.  This altitude was reached by a Mig-25 in 1977.  The aircraft could not actually maintain operations at this altitude.  Instead, the altitude was reached by putting the aircraft into a zoom climb, achieving the most rapid climb rate possible.  The climb carried the aircraft beyond the altitude where its engines could function, but it continued to climb in altitude due to its own momentum.

128,177 feet: Felix Baumgartner’s October 14 jump – although not officially verified (yet) this is the highest parachute jump and highest manned balloon flight to date.

173,900 feet: The highest altitude ever reached by a balloon.  In 2002, an unmanned balloon made of an ultra thin membrane reached this altitude, breaking the previous record of approximately 170,000 feet, set in 1972.

264,000 feet: 50 statute miles.  This is the altitude that the US Air Force has traditionally used for awarding astronauts wings.

288,000 feet: Approximate maximum altitude of the V-2, the first operational ballistic missile.

328,085 feet: The Kármán line.  This altitude is sometimes refereed to as the official line between the atmosphere and outer space, and is recognized as such by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale for the purpose of differentiating aeronautics from astronautics. The significance of this altitude is that in order of a body to achieve enough lift for level flight, it would need to travel at a speed greater than its orbital velocity. Thus, orbital dynamics becomes the dominant factor in flight and it is not possible to maintain flight by aerodynamics alone.

350,000 feet: Approximate maximum altitude achieved by the X-15.

367,0000 feet: Approximate maximum altitude yet achieved by Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne.

401,280 feet: This is the altitude NASA’s mission control uses as a reference for spacecraft reentry. It is the region where atmospheric drag on a spacecraft becomes significant enough to produce heating and make aerodynamic maneuvering possible. Therefore, when a spacecraft crosses this altitude, it is said to have begun the reentry portion of its flight.

445,000 feet: This is (VERY approximately) the altitude required for a satellite to maintain a stable orbit above earth’s surface. Bellow this altitude, the amount of atmospheric drag will result in rapid orbital decay. Early US spy satellites flew at this approximate altitude during their orbital perigee, in order to make observations as close to the earth’s surface as possible. At this altitude drag is significant enough that a restartable motor was required to keep the satellites orbiting and total flights were short – under two months.

The minimum altitude needed to achieve orbit will depend on the size and aerodynamics of the spacecraft, solar activity and a variety of other factors. However, this represents a good practical example of what has actually been achieved by a functional satellite.   The orbit was elliptical and thus it did not spend most of its time at this low an altitude, that was just for the lowest pass.

610,000 feet: Lowest orbit of the Space Shuttle Program. STS-59 and STS-68 were the Space Shuttle missions with the lowest orbital altitude. These flights used space-based radar for earth observation.  Much lower than this would cause the Shuttle to rapidly deorbit due to drag.

615,120 feet: The maximum altitude reached by Astronaut Alan Shepard during Mercury-Redstone 3.  Shepard is often noted as “the first American in space” for this flight, although he did not enter earth orbit.

800,525 feet: The maximum altitude reached by the Bumper-WAC rocket, an early research rocket used by the United States in the late 1940′s.   The Bumber-WAC used a captured German V-2 rocket for the first stage and a WAC Corporal missile for the second stage.

836,286 feet: Reported to be the lowest average altitude of any currently functional satellite and the lowest altitude of any satellite to operate for an extended period of time (years). The European Space Agencies GOCE satellites measure variations in the earth’s magnetic field. Their low altitude means that they are required to fire ion thrusters frequently to fight the effects of atmospheric drag.


Conclusion:

No, not space.   And not “close to space” or “the edge of space” either.   Unless by “the edge” suddenly means “barely halfway there, by the most low-altitude definition possible”


This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 at 3:30 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Good Science, media, Misc, Space. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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18 Responses to “No Felix Baumgartner Absolutely Did NOT Jump From “Space””

  1. 1
    David Says:

    Ok, point taken, but as far as publicity stunts go, this is a lot less worthless than most. At least it was actually doing something that had not been done before (even if jumps from close to it had been) and it involved some actual risk and suspense. Most publicity stunts are a lot less real and interesting.

    Space altitude info is cool. I don’t know about the practice of reporting altitude in feet, but I bet you’ll find the ESA and probably most space organizations other than NASA don’t use feet at all.


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  2. 2
    magne Says:

    Think most reported this as jump from the edge of space who is accurate enough for an headline as it’s between space and the useable part of the atmosphere.
    However if somebody did a jump from a spacecraft one plane we are talking, yes this would bring up a lot of other problems like heat during reentry and stability problems who Felix also had.

    I agree on the balloon height record, it’s pretty absurd as you always drop the balloon and use an parachute to land the cargo anyway with stratosphere balloons, simply as they are to thin to be reused anyway.


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  3. 3
    DV82XL Says:

    More stunt than science, but seeing some of the garbage that passes for science these days, even in peer-reviewed journals, I can’t find it in my heart to criticize Felx and company too much.


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  4. 4
    Speedy Says:

    Can somebody please translate the archaic british gibberish into units sane people can understand?


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  5. 5
    Nick P. Says:

            Speedy said:

    Can somebody please translate the archaic british gibberish into units sane people can understand?

    Here: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=imperial+to+metric+calculator

    Because we TOTALLY have to get snippy about these things.

    Criminy…


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  6. 6
    James Greenidge Says:

    Excellent aeronautical reference set! Too bad most reporters skipped science 101 in “enlightening” the public. The 401,280 feet figure was of special concern to the USAF in the early 1960′s because this was the realm its X-20 Dyna Soar was going to play and perform unique atmospheric skipping and orbital plane changing tricks. On a related note with is article, the notion that the popular “space elevator” concept drops you off in orbit is literally dead wrong if you try.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY


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  7. 7
    Ben Says:

    They aren’t British feet – they are international feet, which are slightly longer – by 0.00017%.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_(unit)#Obsolete_use_in_different_countries


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  8. 8
    DV82XL Says:

    And now he is running his mouth on subjects he should know better not to: Felix Baumgartner: Mars is a waste of your tax dollars

    I wonder how long before Red Bull pulls his chain and he will have to claim he was misquoted?


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  9. 9
    I'mnotreallyhere Says:

            DV82XL said:

    And now he is running his mouth on subjects he should know better not to: Felix Baumgartner: Mars is a waste of your tax dollars

    I wonder how long before Red Bull pulls his chain and he will have to claim he was misquoted?

    I don’t know about that, I think he might well be right. Not that jumping from the upper atmosphere means very much either, but we could benefit from learning a lot more about the Earth. That said, I suppose learning more about Mars gives us comparison against our own planet.


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  10. 10
    James Greenidge Says:

            DV82XL said:

    And now he is running his mouth on subjects he should know better not to: Felix Baumgartner: Mars is a waste of your tax dollars

    I wonder how long before Red Bull pulls his chain and he will have to claim he was misquoted?

    Wonder if NASA’s eating the praise they heaped on his “accomplishment”! :D


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  11. 11
    Rick55 Says:

    Doesn’t it seem, to anyone here, that the entire thing might have been a hoax? I mean… I think I understand how a helium balloon rises in air but there are limits involved, right? What are the calculations that show that Felix could have gone to 128,000 feet? It seems a bit high to me. As far as that goes, Kittinger’s “record” in 1960 seems suspect to me as well.

    How does an HeBalloon rise in the first place? I’ve read that since the He is lighter than air, it will be buoyant and rise, according to Archimedes Principle. The amount of air displacement by the HeBalloon is such that it is pushed aside by the balloon volume, comes under the balloon and pushed the balloon up. This only works so far as the weight of the air is more than the combined weight of the He + balloon.

    As the air becomes less dense, at higher elevations, two things occur. With a fixed balloon size, the weight of the displaced air becomes less. It’s therefore less and less likely to be enough to force the balloon ever higher. If the balloon expands, it will displace a bit more air but not much since the size of the expanding balloon is only compensating for the lower pressure. All things equal, the weight of the air should be about the same and thus the buoyancy would be the same. At some point the balloon would stop rising if the weight of the air is less than the combined weight of the balloon and He. IF the balloon has a weight attached (like Felix and the capsule), it would stop rising long before its design capacity. The balloon can only expand so much, as well, before bursting. The weight distribution on such a thin plastic balloon would have had to have been a problem too.

    The normal maximum height for weather balloons has to have already been calculated pretty carefully. The weather balloon is made of very thin plastic for a reason– it’s thin because they want the weight to be as small as possible. Breaching the design specs of the weather balloon by adding a felix-in-a-can seems, to me, to be nothing other than a good hoax. It seems plausible at first consideration but any deeper look at it raises questions.

    There are companies that now work on “sky crane” balloons that are helium balloons designed to lift the amount of weight represented by Felix and a capsule. But these companies are fairly new and their work-balloons are meticulously engineered for loads. The High altitude weather balloon was never designed for a big load and any engineer who spends any time thinking about this problem would instantly see that this is the case.

    There are many angles to examine here but I would urge DC readers/contributors to consider Archimedes Principle first. The weight of the displaced air caused by the size of the Red Bull Balloon + the Capsule-with-Felix-in-it must be greater than that configuration for the configuration to go up. Even on the ground in Roswell, I don’t think that the weight of air displaced by the Balloon could have been greater than the configuration… which weight 6000 pounds.

    A hot air balloon is about 3 million cu. ft. and just from looking at the redbull balloon on the ground, it seems to have about that size… but lets double it, to grant redbull the benefit of the doubt. On the ground the redbull balloon would be 6 million cu ft, but lets round up to 10 million cu ft. Air weighs about 1/100th of a pound per sq ft so I calculated that the amount of air displaced is 10,000 pounds. With these rough numbers, the configuration of a balloon with Felix in a capsule at about 7000 pounds, could have risen.

    Half the atmosphere is under 8000 feet so air density would be half, at 8000 feet, so weight would be half. Thus the displaced air would weigh 5000 pounds. But Felix and the Capsule are still at 7000 pounds. The displaced air no longer weighs more than the configuration so it cannot rise any further. Felix would have stopped rising somewhere around 5000 feet. Most parachute jumps are done from around 10,000 feet but 5000 will do.

    Based on this rough calculation, it appears to me that claims of having gone to 100,000 feet or more are not possible.

    Rick Potvin
    http://redbullhoax.blogspot.com/


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  12. 12
    DV82XL Says:

            Rick55 said:

    Based on this rough calculation, it appears to me that claims of having gone to 100,000 feet or more are not possible.

    Your estimates are in gross error: the balloon used was some 30 million cubic ft, not 10 million.

    The flight data will be evaluated first by the Austrian Aeroclub (ÖAeC) since Baumgartner is an Austrian citizen and will then be confirmed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. The chances of this being a fraud are therefore very low.


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  13. 13
    I'mnotreallyhere Says:

    In the modern world, it’s probably easier to overcome the scientific and engineering challenges of actually doing the jump than creating a hoax which can withstand the scrutiny of the world’s population.


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  14. 14
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Rick55 said:

    The normal maximum height for weather balloons has to have already been calculated pretty carefully. The weather balloon is made of very thin plastic for a reason– it’s thin because they want the weight to be as small as possible. Breaching the design specs of the weather balloon by adding a felix-in-a-can seems, to me, to be nothing other than a good hoax. It seems plausible at first consideration but any deeper look at it raises questions.

    The term “weather balloon” is a bit deceptive.

    Originally unmanned balloons were used primarily for tracking winds and making basic meteorology measurements.

    That’s really not what modern, large high altitude balloons do. They are designed to carry instruments to extremely high altitudes and are used for a variety of purposes, such as measuring cosmic rays, ozone levels etc.

    Some of the payloads lifted by high altitude balloons are quite large. An example would be the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BLAST_%28telescope%29

    Another is the Cosmic Ray Electron Synchrotron Telescope.

    These are not little boxes of barometers and thermometers. They’re big heavy pieces of equipment. So, yes, modern high altitude balloons can lift pretty big loads.


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  15. 15
    renevers Says:

    …..
    There are many angles to examine here but I would urge DC readers/contributors to consider Archimedes Principle first. The weight of the displaced air caused by the size of the Red Bull Balloon + the Capsule-with-Felix-in-it must be greater than that configuration for the configuration to go up. Even on the ground in Roswell, I don’t think that the weight of air displaced by the Balloon could have been greater than the configuration… which weight 6000 pounds.

    A hot air balloon is about 3 million cu. ft. and just from looking at the redbull balloon on the ground, it seems to have about that size… but lets double it, to grant redbull the benefit of the doubt. On the ground the redbull balloon would be 6 million cu ft, but lets round up to 10 million cu ft. Air weighs about 1/100th of a pound per sq ft so I calculated that the amount of air displaced is 10,000 pounds. With these rough numbers, the configuration of a balloon with Felix in a capsule at about 7000 pounds, could have risen.

    Half the atmosphere is under 8000 feet so air density would be half, at 8000 feet, so weight would be half. Thus the displaced air would weigh 5000 pounds. But Felix and the Capsule are still at 7000 pounds. The displaced air no longer weighs more than the configuration so it cannot rise any further. Felix would have stopped rising somewhere around 5000 feet. Most parachute jumps are done from around 10,000 feet but 5000 will do.

    Based on this rough calculation, it appears to me that claims of having gone to 100,000 feet or more are not possible.

    Rick Potvin
    http://redbullhoax.blogspot.com/

    Rick: These calculation is easier..
    Helium has atomic/molecular weight= 4 g/mol , Nitrogen N2 =28 , Oxygen O2= 32.. Air is 80% nitrogen .So this gives that 4 kg of helium displaces 28.8 kg of air mixture . So about a factor 7.2 is the raise factor. Excluding its own weight :One =1 kg of Helium lifts net 6.2 kg of Balloon tissue ,construction and load. At the ground at 1 bar atmospheric pressure that is a reasonable small volume to store in the balloon. But when the balloon rises the helium must be able to expand as the pressure drops and the volume of the gas is bigger. The balloon cannot raise any further when all possible maximum volume in the balloon, is used up and overpressure begins. That is why the balloon is so saggy at bottom level, to have spare volume. It will be nice and round high in space. The balloon can leak Helium as well by porosity of the cloth tissue of the balloon, causing less lift than presumed. The balloon maximum volume is also, the pressure and so height determining factor.

    Question .. Why using that expensive Helium ? .. Hydrogen is cheaper and is even lighter..(2) Baumgartner has a parachute and even a fire at 300m makes that he would survive , just by jumping out of the cabin. Was the balloon leaking that much ,that it would be a hazard? It is not a commercial zeppelin!

    Question 2 : The press says, that Baumgartner fell faster that the speed of sound… But is that correct? Speed of sound is dependent on the density of the air and temperature and so on the pressure so on the height within the atmosphere. Ok for a jetliner on 11 km height it is about 1060 km/hr 295m/s.. But what for the speed of sound at the pressure at 32km to 25 km and where Baumgartner fell at some 372 m/s max speed, according to the press releases ? Has he surpassed the sound barrier TWICE (over it and under it again)? What did he do about the sonic boom in his helmet and ears?
    I think that the extra air resistance, to approximate the speed of sound, could have prevented Felix to break it. But in thin air it is perhaps possible.
    Between 39 and 35 km height ,he was still accelerating and could not surpass the speed of sound and between 35 and 11 km the speed of sound drops from 305 to 295 m/s . So it should have been near this speed. If he has broken S.O.S. it should have been near 35-30 km height with the low density air with low friction resistance break force for him.. It would be nice to see a speed and pressure diagram from the fall.

    Anyway: 372 m/s is greater than the speed of sound on any height here, so if he reached that speed (how was it measured? GPS?), than he would have surpassed the sound barrier.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Comparison_US_standard_atmosphere_1962.svg&page=1


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  16. 16
    drbuzz0 Says:

            renevers said:

    What did he do about the sonic boom in his helmet and ears?

    Presumably nothing, since he would not have experienced any sonic boom. A sonic boom is a pressure wave, like a ship’s wake. The aircraft (or in the case the human) who is generating the boom is actually riding in the pressure wave and therefore does not hear the boom.

    Anyway, there seems to be a misunderstanding by a lot of people about what a sonic boom actually is. A common misconception is that when you “break the sound barrier” there is a loud bang that happens once that sonic booms are produced by the aircraft or other body at a various instant.

    That’s not how it is at all. There is a wave of pressure that travels along with the aircraft. This is continuous, just as a ship creates a wake as it travels, the aircraft creates a wake of air pressure. As the aircraft travels along it is doing this continuously. The reason it is a “boom” is to a stationary observer the sound of the change in pressure arrives all at once. You hear the boom as the aircraft passes.


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  17. 17
    George Carty Says:

    One misconception I used to have (from watching Thunderbirds as a child) is that a sonic boom is only heard the instant an aircraft accelerates through Mach 1…


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  18. 18
    James Greenidge Says:

            George Carty said:

    One misconception I used to have (from watching Thunderbirds as a child) is that a sonic boom is only heard the instant an aircraft accelerates through Mach 1…

    Heck, I was watching this just before high school when it appeared on WPIX-TV here in NYC in around 1968-69! Along with the X-20 mentioned above, I was even thinking of doing a book report on TB on rolling together equivalent real-life vehicles to see how close/far we were to creating a real IR! I’d like to see a science/engineering report doing something similar today just for interest sake since Popular Mechanics dropped that ball!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY


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