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Space divers wanted

Space activist Rick Tumlinson's latest venture aims to blend the thrills of spaceflight with the chills of skydiving, to come up with what he sees as the ultimate extreme sport: space diving. But as he revealed more details about his latest fiendish plan today, the conversation focused on the safety of it all as well as the thrill of it all.

Is it really possible to blend safety and danger, particularly when you're talking about a scheme that calls for jumping off a rocket ship with a parachute at an altitude of more than 120,000 feet? "The parachute is both a safety system and a sporting device," Tumlinson said. And besides, it'll make for a great TV stunt.

That's the strange brew of Hollywood hype and higher purpose behind Space Diving, a project that goes hand in hand with Tumlinson's other business venture, Orbital Outfitters. Tumlinson said that the space diving idea actually came to him first, but that he realized he'd have to create another venture to make the pressure suits for the dives.

Thus, Orbital Outfitters was born first, and the company is aiming to deliver its first prototype spacesuits to California-based XCOR Aerospace later this year.

As for Space Diving, Tumlinson freely admits that venture isn't quite ready for prime time. Nevertheless, news about the venture has been leaking out over the past few months, and Tumlinson talked about it openly at the International Space Development Conference in Dallas last month.

Now the concept is featured in July's issue of Popular Science magazine, and Tumlinson is showing even more of his hand. Here are the some of the cards he's revealing:

  • Members of the Space Diving development team include former NASA flight surgeon Jon Clark, Bill Stone of Stone Aerospace and political space consultant Jim Muncy. Tumlinson said he's already had "informal communication" with the Federal Aviation Administration about the regulatory issues.
  • Tumlinson envisions future space divers taking the leap from rocket ships being developed by XCOR Aerospace as well as Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace. The diving tests would begin at a relatively low skydiving altitude - say, 5,000 feet - and gradually rise to record-breaking altitudes of 120,000 feet and beyond. "We would like to have the first serious test diving starting at the end of '08, and then work our way up from there," Tumlinson said.
  • The fiendish plan depends in part on securing deals for sponsorships and a reality-TV show - say, in time for February 2009's TV sweeps. "We are very, very eager to find a major television partner," Tumlinson said.
  • He declined to put a price tag on the experience, other than to say that a space dive from 120,000 feet would be "way lower than the cost of suborbital [space] tourism." That altitude is far lower than the internationally accepted 328,000-foot-high boundary of outer space - but you would still be able to see black sky and Earth's curvature, as shown in these JP Aerospace photos taken from a similar altitude.

One of Tumlinson's goals is to present a jump that would break the 102,800-foot skydiving record set by Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger back in 1960. "We want to clearly break the current record, but that's the only record. ... After that, we're not worried about records any more," Tumlinson said.

"We're not doing this for personal grandeur, not doing it for glory so much as we are doing it to open space and carry on where Colonel Kittinger left off," he continued. "Kittinger did this in the name of saving lives, and that's what we're doing. Our goal is to touch our toe to the water at lower altitudes, and work our way higher and higher. The eventual goal is to bring people safely back from orbit."

From orbit? From, say, 220 miles up?

Eventually, Tumlinson foresees a day when private-sector space fliers can go "orbital surfing," or when astronauts can ride inflatable, aerodynamic pods back down to Earth in the event of an orbital emergency. That's where the safety angle comes to the fore.

"The team that we're putting together with Space Diving is as safety-conscious as you can get," Tumlinson said. "Jon Clark's wife died in the Columbia tragedy. This is a man who lives and breathes safety. This is not a fly-by-night operation by any means. ... We are going to leave a legacy of safety behind that is just going to be amazing."

If Tumlinson and his partners build such a system - or, for that matter, a space-diving platform that would shoot 120,000 feet up - would skydivers in search of the ultimate thrill take that ride? Mike Truffer, publisher of Skydiving magazine, is doubtful.

"There are significant technological and physiological challenges - not to be a wet blanket," Truffer told me today.

He pointed out that two accomplished parachutists, Michel ("Super-Jump") Fournier and Cheryl ("StratoQuest") Stearns, have been trying to break Kittinger's record for years. "It's not so much the technology to get that high, because we have done that with helium balloons pretty routinely," Truffer said, "But how does a person maintain control in that environment, and what type of equipment would he need to sustain his life?"

That's not to say the feat is impossible.

"It's doable, if you have several million dollars to make it happen. ... But I don't think that's within the grasp of the typical weekend jumper," said Truffer, who calculates that he has made 7,826 jumps to date.

Tumlinson said he's confident his team can put together the life support system, the launch system and the training system that can get the job done. Not just once, but over and over again. Will it be the ultimate leap, or the ultimate leap of faith? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.