Daredevils Reach New Highs and Lows
Science and technology reached new heights and depths in 2012, thanks to human daredevils willing to risk life and limb to explore both the Earth’s stratosphere and its deepest undersea trench. The success of both feats hinged not only on the cutting-edge gear that protected the men from either thin air or crushing pressure, but also on clever thinking to reach their destinations.
On October 14 Austrian Felix Baumgartner broke the 50-year-old mark for highest-ever skydive after leaping from a balloon nearly 39 kilometers above Earth’s surface, traveling at supersonic speeds before landing in southeastern New Mexico. During his 20-minute descent Baumgartner’s top speed reached 1,342.8 kilometers per hour, making him the first skydiver to break the sound barrier, which is 1,236 kilometers per hour at sea level. Baumgartner’s mission also set the record for highest-ever manned balloon flight.
Baumgartner’s full-pressure suit included a control mechanism designed to adjust pressure at different altitudes, protecting him from symptoms of decompression sickness during his rapid descent. The balloon that took Baumgartner to the apex of his journey was made of a polyethylene film, only 0.02 millimeter thick, that could enclose a voume of nearly 850,000 cubic meters. Baumgartner’s equipment included main and emergency parachutes, along with a drogue stabilization chute to help him recover from an uncontrollable spin. The main and reserve chutes were designed to open at speeds of up to 280 kilometers per hour.
At the other extreme, filmmaker James Cameron in March became the first solo aquanaut to reach the deepest recess of the Mariana Trench, touching down at the Challenger Deep site about 11 kilometers below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Cameron, who directed the first two Terminator movies as well as Titanic and Avatar, piloted his DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible on the seven-hour round-trip, spending about three hours at the deepest spot on the planet’s crust to collect samples for marine biological, microbiological, astrobiological, marine geologic and geophysical research.
The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER included several features designed to aid Cameron on his expedition, including a sphere-shaped pressurized cockpit that collected moisture from Cameron’s exhaled breath and sweat into a plastic bag. Cameron could have consumed this concoction if he had run low on drinking water. About 70 percent of the CHALLENGER’s volume was taken up by syntactic foam made from millions of hollow glass microspheres suspended in an epoxy resin, making the vessel’s skin low in density but extremely strong. —Larry Greenemeier
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