UPDATE: Due to weather concerns, Baumgartner's jump has been delayed to Tuesday morning.

By: Jeremy Hsu, TechNewsDaily Senior Writer
Published: 10/04/2012 11:40 AM EDT on TechNewsDaily

An upcoming plunge from a balloon could break the world record for skydiving. But the world may have a long wait before the age of true "space jumps."

The Red Bull Stratos "space jump" planned by Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner, 43, won't actually be from space. The Oct. 8 stunt takes aim at an altitude of almost 23 miles, or 120,000 feet (36 kilometers) — well short of the altitude where space begins, 62 miles, or 327,000 feet (100 km), above Earth. Higher jumps probably would require expensive rockets and specialized space-diving suits — not to mention a thriving commercial spaceflight industry with paying customers — to become a reality.

The limits of current technology are being pushed by Baumgartner's planned supersonic plunge — for instance, he will rely upon the largest balloon ever built for manned flight to carry him into the stratosphere. During his initial free fall in the near-vacuum conditions of the stratosphere, he will have relatively little control over steering and attitude.

Baumgartner will be wearing a pressure suit similar to what supersonic SR-71 Blackbird pilots once wore. At higher altitudes, however, "the suit stops needing to become a pressure suit and starts needing to become a small spacecraft," observes Jeff Feige, chief executive of spacesuit maker Orbital Outfitters.

Orbital Outfitters has worked on spacesuit designs for both NASA and commercial spaceflight companies such as SpaceX. But it also has considered suits that could work for "space-diving" from suborbital or orbital vehicles, whether for emergency escapes or for thrill seeking.

Getting the technology

Anyone trying to go higher than the Red Bull Stratos attempt would need a specialized space-diving suit that protects him or her from even more extreme conditions. Jumping from higher altitudes means reaching higher speeds during free fall in both vacuum and atmospheric conditions, and creates extra challenges for the spacesuit wearer to control descent and avoid going into a fatal spin. [Ultimate Skydiving: Falling Human to Break Sound Barrier?]

"At high altitude, you go faster and faster and faster before you hit the thickening atmosphere," Feige told TechNewsDaily. "You'll have control issues in vacuum, and then you get the atmosphere."

High-altitude space jumping also would require rockets and suborbital flight vehicles similar to the ones being built by space tourism companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, Feige said. Jumping off a fast-moving rocket ship rather than a relatively stable balloon would represent a whole new challenge for would-be space divers.

Feige likes to refer to spacesuits as integrated parts of spaceships rather than the "clothes you wear on launch day" — his way of saying that spacesuits must be tailored to the specific characteristics of each vehicle. Space diver suits may share the same fundamental technologies but will require different characteristics for leaping from an XCOR Aerospace vehicle traveling in a parabolic curve versus one of Blue Origin's straight up, straight down flights.

A space-diving exit from a spacecraft in orbit may end up making less sense than just using entire capsules as escape pods, Feige said. But he and Orbital Outfitters still see the potential use of space-diving suits as backups for suborbital flights.

From skydiving to space jumping

If the Red Bull Stratos jump succeeds, video footage of Baumgartner free-falling in his full-body pressure suit and helmet undoubtedly will inspire people around the world. But the attempt by itself barely scratches the technological challenges of true space-diving. And a single-person stunt is a far cry from a space-diving industry.

"Everything goes slower than you want it," Feige said. "For the space-diving stuff, the business case isn't there yet, even if it's technologically achievable."

The commercial spaceflight industry remains small and relatively untested, even if it has grown through the big-dollar bets of wealthy entrepreneurs such as SpaceX's Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson. Space-diving suits as emergency escape options may make business sense only after spaceflight firms have launched more than a few space tourists and astronauts on suborbital flights.

"Our fortunes wax and wane on people actually doing stuff and flying and having money to buy stuff," Feige explained. "Right now it's still a very hard and tight market."

Still, Feige pointed to the skydiving business as a possible model for space-diving. Parachute makers originally supplied parachutes as emergency equipment for military and civilian pilots, but recreational skydiving eventually spun off as its own profitable industry. Similarly, space-diving suits initially designed for astronauts or space tourists could someday spawn a recreational space jump industry for more people than just sponsored daredevils.

You can follow TechNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @jeremyhsu. Follow TechNewsDaily on Twitter @TechNewsDaily, or on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 TechNewsDaily, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner is scheduled to attempt the highest parachute jump of all time on Oct. 9, 2012. Here, Baumgartner performs during the first high altitude test jump from an airplane in Taft, California on February 20, 2012.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner during the high altitude test jump.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner during a test jump from a helicopter, April 13, 2009.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner leaps off the 508-meter high Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan on December 11, 2008.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner at the top of the Christ the Redeemer Statue near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 3, 2001. Before Stratos, Baumgartner was best known as a skydiver and BASE jumper.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner during the first manned test flight of the capsule, February 23, 2012.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    The mission control during the first manned test flight.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    The Roswell, New Mexico launch location of the first test flight.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner during the first test flight.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    The capsule just before the second manned test flight, July 25, 2012.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    The capsule in the pressure chamber at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    The interior of the capsule in Lancaster, California on February 1, 2012.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner during wind tunnel test on February 26, 2010.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Retired Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger with Baumgartner during a press conference in Salzburg, Austria on April 23, 2012. Kittinger holds the record for the highest-altitude jump, which he set in 1960. He is an advisor for the Stratos project and will relay messages to and from Baumgartner during the October jump attempt.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Kittinger just prior to his record setting jump from 102.800 feet in 1960. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Kittinger

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner undergoes scientific tests in Los Angeles, USA on June 11, 2012.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Screen shows brain waves of Baumgartner during scientific test session.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner during the first manned test flight.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner inside the capsule prior to the second manned test flight.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner during training session in Lancaster, California, on February 22, 2012.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Crew members prepare the capsule for the second manned test flight.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Crew members fill the balloon with helium before the second manned test flight.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Baumgartner steps out of the capsule during the second manned test flight.

  • Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Skydive Attempt

    Mission Coordinator Mike Jacobs (L) and Kittinger (R) work during the second manned test flight.