Taking Sky Diving to the Next Level With 'Space Diving'

From there, an obvious milestone would be Kittinger's record, which many have tried to break over the decades. Although technically 100,000 feet is not high enough to be considered space, the sky is black and you can see the curvature of the Earth.

The higher you go, the bigger the obstacles. If you jumped from 300,000 feet, you would speed up to 2,500 mph. Then you have to start worrying about the heat of re-entering the atmosphere, with temperatures reaching 400 degrees.

For this, Clark cites another Air Force survival story: In 1966, an SR-71 Blackbird crew had to eject at 78,800 feet going faster than Mach 3. The navigator died from a broken neck, but the pilot made it through with only minor bruises.

"He survived because his suit inflated, basically acting like a cocoon air bag," said Clark. "So what we're proposing is, if you made this suit out of thermal- and pressure-resistant material, like Kevlar or Nomex, then the pressure of the suit itself would act like a little exoskeleton, and you could survive a hypersonic re-entry."

But Clark is realistic about the risks involved. "Don't expect that this isn't going to be a real dangerous endeavor. It's going to be a challenge," he said. "We're going to make some mistakes along the way and learn some poignant lessons. But you can't just quit just because you have a problem."

Not a Pie in the Sky

So is all this really possible? Scientists say that technically, it is. Whether it will happen any time remotely soon is another matter. The biggest problem likely won't be the science behind the suit, but paying for it.

"The technology is achievable," said David Klaus, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in human spaceflight and spacesuits. "I think that it will be marketing and funding strategies that dictate whether this is successful."

Those sentiments are echoed by John Wozniak, an engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "If you want to put enough money and manpower behind it, I think it could be done," he said. "It's not like you have to invent impossible materials. It's just going to take a lot of engineering development, a lot of testing."

Tumlinson is hoping to acquire funding through sponsorship, and possibly by filming the project for a reality TV show. But even if that happens, it's unclear whether Space Diver is a sustainable business model.

"If you have people who are willing to surf an 80-foot tidal wave, I think you're probably going to have adventure seekers who are going to try to go for the ultimate," said Marco Caceres, a senior analyst with Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm. "The question is, is that a big enough market to make money?"

There is also the not-so-insignificant matter of the ship that space divers would be jumping from. Tumlinson is hoping to potentially use one from XCOR or Armadillo Aerospace, which is developing a craft that can hover.

And the experts are more skeptical about using a space-diving suit for an emergency bailout from an orbiting space station or craft. That's because the speeds involved would be much greater — on the order of 15,000 mph, which translates into temperatures of thousands of degrees.

"If you're in an orbital environment, I would find it a stretch to think you could actually re-enter without a vehicle," said Klaus. But, he said, it could be possible with some kind of shield as protection from the intense heat.

"If you think about a spacesuit in a certain fashion, it's just a miniature spacecraft. It provides all the same functions," he said. "A spacesuit and a spacecraft, from a functional standpoint, are identical."

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