June 30, 2007

SPACEDIVING:

Sixty miles up, you sit in a chair on the open deck of a small rocket, admiring the stars above, the Earth far, far below. The vacuum beyond your visor is cold, but it would boil your blood if your pressure suit failed. You give your parachute straps a reassuring pat. It’s utterly silent. Just you and your fragile body, hovering alone above the Earth. “Space Diver One, you are go,” crackles a voice in your ear, and you undo your harness and stand up. There’s nothing for it now: You paid a lot of money for this.

You breathe deeply and leap, somersaulting into the void. The mother planet is gorgeous from up here. You barely perceive that it’s rushing up toward you, and your body relaxes. You streak into the atmosphere at 2,500 miles an hour, faster than anyone’s ever gone without a vehicle. The sky lightens, the stars disappear behind the blue, and a violent buffeting begins. You deploy your drogue chute for stability; an uncontrolled spin in this thin air would rip you apart. The thick lower atmosphere slows you to 120 mph—terminal velocity. After a thrilling seven-minute plummet, you pull your main chute at 3,000 feet, hands shaking, and glide in for landing. A mile away, your rocket retro-thrusts its way gently to the ground.

Sounds cool. I’d like to be — well, not the first guy to do that. Maybe the fourth.