Felix Baumgartner skydive: that was one rather helpful leap for space tourism

Felix Baumgartner’s jump has kept the dream of space as a playground alive, says Anjana Ahuja

Felix Baumgartner successfully jumped from a space capsule, Red Bull Stratos, lifted by a helium balloon at a height of just
 over 128,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.  Photo: AFP PHOTO / http://www.redbullcontentpool.com / Jay Nemeth

 Even the most hardened thrill-seeker might have been expecting to read Felix Baumgartner’s obituary by now. After all, there were a myriad of gruesome ways in which the Austrian daredevil, intent on performing a skydive from the edge of space, could have expired: an unscheduled, premature plunge if the fragile, relatively untested helium balloon in which he was ascending had been punctured; a pinprick tear in his spacesuit that would have caused his blood to boil in the thin, unforgiving air of the stratosphere; an uncontrolled “death spin” as he plummeted more than 24 miles to Earth; or losing consciousness during the supersonic descent and becoming unable to open his parachute.

Instead, on Sunday night, Baumgartner broke three aviation records – for height reached in a balloon, for highest skydive, and above all for the speed with which a human being has fallen, reaching 833 mph, or Mach 1.24.

Perhaps most significantly, however, he kept the dream of space as a playground alive.

It is no coincidence that, as Baumgartner coolly touched down in the New Mexico desert and dusted himself off, some of the first congratulatory messages came from retired and serving astronauts. “Simply awesome job #Felix… now that’s what I call pushing the limit!” tweeted British astronaut Tim Peake, who works for the European Space Agency. Metaphorical slaps on the back also came from the European and American space agencies. “Congrats Felix Baumgartner and #spacejump team. We’re working on supersonic flight for the rest of us – with a plane!” tweeted officials at Nasa’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, which is trying to design supersonic planes for the future.

At the point of his leap, there were only three people further away from the Earth than Baumgartner: the astronauts on the International Space Station. Which perhaps explains the palpable sense of gratitude towards him in the aviation and space industry. “Felix is a truly brave explorer, and his jump will benefit space exploration,” wrote George Whitesides of Virgin Galactic, a private space tourism firm that has taken 500 bookings for space flights at $200,000 a seat.

As nations retreat from the costly business of funding ambitious space programmes that have no obvious payback for the taxpayer, the private sector has been filling the gap. Partly, it is about conquering new frontiers – but there are many who see space as the logical next step in mankind’s restless search for fresh, often extreme, experiences, now that climbing Everest or reaching the Poles are within relatively easy reach for millionaires with money to burn.

When London hosted a European space tourism conference this summer, the agenda not only featured updates from four commercial companies, including Virgin Galactic, that hope to start flights by the end of 2013, but also from an asset management company, Allianz Global, about its planned travel insurance products for space travellers.

Among the delegates was Per Wimmer, a London-based financier who longs to be the first Dane in space and has, correspondingly, booked not just one seat but three. He has contracts with three different companies – Virgin Galactic, Xcor and Space Adventures – to be one of the first passengers in their departure lounge. “You could say I’m fully hedged,” quips Wimmer, a self-confessed space fanatic who counts the Bransons and Buzz Aldrin among his friends, and chose to open his investment bank on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik.

Wimmer is also an adventurer: in 2008, he completed the first tandem skydive above Mount Everest, and has bought a trip to see the Titanic in a Mir submersible. Baumgartner’s exploits, he says, will have a direct bearing on his own cosmic ambitions: “What Felix has done is fantastic as an adventure, but it’s also important in terms of pushing the science, because of his spacesuit, and I’m waiting for the analysis on that. He went through the speed of sound unprotected except for his suit, and it’s good to know that if things go wrong up there, then the spacesuits will give some protection.”

Baumgartner’s suit, designed by the company that Nasa uses, was custom-made to cope with conditions at 128,000 feet. It was also designed to be manoeuvrable in a way that most off-the-shelf spacesuits aren’t – a fact that might have saved his life as he went into a worrying spin in the first part of his descent.

For those preferring to go up rather than down, there is already a history of sending paying passengers where few have boldly gone before. The Virginia-based company Space Adventures has brokered deals with the Russian space agency to send seven space tourists, each paying upwards of $20 million, to the International Space Station on Soyuz rockets, alongside cosmonauts. These included Charles Simonyi, a software billionaire, Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, and Anousheh Ansari, the Iranian co-founder of a telecoms company and the only woman so far. Last week, it emerged that the singer Sarah Brightman has just booked, and is about to start six months’ training. Other companies, conscious that picky travellers might want a destination worthy of the trip, are exploring the viability of hotels in space: Bigelow Aerospace, for example, has snapped up discarded Nasa plans for inflatable, orbiting hotels.

Dr Geoff Busswell, who organised the space tourism conference, says that space will not always be a haven for the moneyed: “Virgin Galactic predicts that the cost of a trip will halve to $100,000 after the first year of operation, so just as with air travel, the rich will pave the way for the rest of us.” Indeed, given the astronomical price tag, lengthy training regime and considerable risk of burning up on re-entry, dispatching civilians to orbiting space stations will probably never constitute a viable business proposition. Instead, the goal is to cross the Kármán Line, about 62 miles up, which is the internationally accepted boundary between Earth and space (and is almost three times higher than Baumgartner’s balloon reached).

This altitude offers much of the allure of space travel – weightlessness, seeing the curvature of the planet – without the drawbacks of going into orbit. And slowly but surely, the industry is getting there. It’s been eight years since SpaceShipOne, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, made its pioneering flight, becoming the first non-governmental plane to take three people up to the Kármán Line and back again, making the flight twice within two weeks to earn a $10 million prize. Virgin Galactic, which bought the technology, recently completed its 100th test flight. Indeed, the field has been energised by a new breed of backers, who see the future of space only in terms of scientific hurdles yet to be overcome.

Says Wimmer: “Between 2000 and 2003, the media were really sceptical and kept asking me, ‘Isn’t space tourism just about fancy Powerpoints and wannabe rockets?’ But now we’re at the point where something really might happen. We’ve been living in an 11km band – we’ve gone one kilometre down in the ocean, and we can go up 10km in planes. There’s nothing to discover on Earth any more; no matter how remote you go, you always find a Coca-Cola dispenser. We’ve really got to push the boundaries up, and space tourism is the way to do it.” Which makes one wonder what a Felix Baumgartner can possibly do next.

Pick of the packages

Virgin Galactic:

Three days of preparation with five fellow passengers and two crew see you strapped in SpaceShipTwo and flying at Mach 3 to around 68 miles up, just past the Kármán Line and therefore technically in space. You get up to seven seconds of weightlessness, plus the sight of the earth’s curvature. A 2.5-hour journey.

Space Adventures:
An estimated $20-35 million

You have six months of preparation at Star City, Moscow, for an eight-day stay on the International Space Station, travelling by Soyuz rocket to 180 miles up. A 90-minute spacewalk costing an extra $15m is also available, which extends your stay by six days and requires an extra month of training. The company is now offering $100m seats for trips around the Moon and claims one seat has been sold for the debut trip in 2015.