A reckless person who enjoys doing dangerous things.
The spectacular jump by Felix Baumgartner from an altitude of 39 kilometers set different records, one of which was achieving the highest speed ever reached by a human in free fall. The official data showed that he attained a maximum speed of 1,343 km/h, approximately 1.2 times the speed of sound at that altitude (the speed of sound is different at different heights in the atmosphere). After becoming the first supersonic man, Mr. Baumgartner and his team have shown that the only barriers that stand in the way of a dream are the laws of nature.
This feat is also significant for another reason: it will provide useful data to develop safety procedures for future high-altitude pilots, or even astronauts, in the event of an emergency bail out from their vehicles. Several companies are designing and testing new spacecraft that, it is hoped, will serve as research platforms for scientific experiments that require at least several minutes of weightlessness, and also as rides for space enthusiasts who are able to pay for a ticket that will give them an unprecedented view of Earth and space from an altitude of about 100 km. These suborbital vehicles will either be launched vertically from the ground or take off horizontally as airplanes do (Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is an example of the first type, and XCOR’s Lynx of the second). Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two will be carried by a specially-designed airplane, called WhiteKnight Two, to an altitude of 16 km and launched from the air; it will then continue upward on powered flight, following an arc-like trajectory, and glide back to land like an airplane.
If the occupants of these vehicles, whether commercial astronauts operating experiments for academic or industrial clients, or tourists who want to experience zero-gravity conditions, are forced to escape because of a spaceplane malfunction that will not allow it to return safely to the ground, then they will need to get out of the vehicle and free fall until the air is dense enough that they have control of their bodies and are able to open their parachutes. However, they wouldn’t want to do that too soon, since then it could take them a longer time to reach the ground (or water) and their available supply of oxygen could run out.
To my knowledge, a high-altitude bail out from an operational spacecraft has not been attempted, and Baumgartner’s achievement is a first step in understanding how the human body reacts when it is subject to such extreme maneuvers. He reported that, because he was wearing a heavy pressure suit, he was unable to get a sense of the air flow around him, specially during the first minute or so of his fall. This could have contributed to his out-of-control spin that made him wonder for a few seconds if he was going to be able to regain control. In the future, it will be important to assess methods to reduce disorientation after an extremely high jump.