As companies work toward rocketing paying passengers into space and back on commercial spaceships, one firm plans on doing it with a twist.
Instead of riding the ship back down to Earth, passengers will jump off it, hurtling through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds until their parachute deploys and they glide safely down to their home planet.
That's the idea behind Space Diver, a company aiming to develop a spacesuit that can survive jumps from amazingly high altitudes.
Spearheading the effort is Rick Tumlinson, an entrepreneur and longtime advocate of private spaceflight. He was a founding trustee of the Ansari X Prize, which awarded $10 million for sending the first private reusable manned craft into space in 2004.
Tumlinson says the suit's initial purpose will be to outfit the ultimate extreme sport of space diving, with the eventual goal of using the suit as a kind of high-altitude life vest for spacefarers in trouble.
His other company, Orbital Outfitters, designs spacesuits for the crew and passengers of commercial spaceships. In a few months, Orbital Outfitters is set to deliver its first prototype suit to XCOR Aerospace, one of about a dozen firms hoping to start selling tickets for spaceflights within the next few years.
Those suits will be designed for protection in an emergency, complete with full pressurization and oxygen supply, but they are by no means a space-diving suit.
"In one of them, you're sitting comfortably in a vehicle," Tumlinson said. "In the other one, you are the vehicle."
Tumlinson compares the suits that his two sister companies are designing to parachutes. "A parachute is both a safety device and a sporting device," he said. "Advances at either end support the other, and that's the way we're treating this. We're going to be pushing the boundaries of extreme sport, and we're going to be pushing the boundaries of extreme safety."
Also on Tumlinson's team is Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who is now at Baylor Medical College's National Space Biomedical Research Institute. He has a personal interest in exploring how to return from space without a ship — his wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, died in the Columbia tragedy.
Tumlinson admits there are plenty of challenges involved in making space diving a reality. Or as Clark bluntly put it, "There are a number of different things that can kill you."
A space-diving suit must protect the wearer from extremes of temperature and pressure, provide oxygen and of course, have a very sturdy parachute. But Clark points at history to prove that it is within the realm of possibility.
The highest jump ever was made in 1960 by Air Force test pilot Joe Kittinger, who leapt from a balloon at 102,800 feet. The temperature was near 100 degrees below zero, and the pressure was low enough that his blood would have boiled without a pressure suit.
He accelerated past 600 mph before the air got thick enough to slow him to terminal velocity, which is about 120 mph. The history-making plunge took less than 14 minutes.
Tumlinson says participants will start at a low altitude and gradually work their way up. The first test jump would be from 5,000 to 10,000 feet, but it would be the first-ever dive from a rocket platform (think of Apollo missions' lunar landers). Space Diver is hoping to do that by the end of 2008.