Monday, August 4, 2008

Dayvan Cowboy

I don’t really have the notion that this blog will be about space all the time, but I am fascinated by space stuff.

And, while I don’t have anything bursting out of me that demands publishing, I do feel a kind of obligation to keep putting interesting things up here as often as possible – even though I haven’t yet told a single soul about this blog except for Jillfoil.

That’s right. Completely whistling in the dark. (And that’s the nicest thing I can think to say about it.)

So due to my sense of obligation and due to my fascination with space and due to the fact that I don’t want this blog to be ALL about space, I am posting something today and it is only tangentially related to space.

But if you like music or music videos or surfing or skydiving, then you might like this. And even if you don't have any particular interest in any of these things, I still think that this is compelling stuff.

To begin, check out this video for “Dayvan Cowboy” from the EP “Trans Canada Highway” by Boards of Canada who are, all appearances to the contrary, from Scotland.

Very compelling tune and the ocean and surfing shots are very cool. But for me, the first half of the video absolutely blows my mind. The footage comes from the military archives of Project Excelsior. This project was concerned with the effects and survivability of high-altitude bailouts from an aircraft (and is helpful also if, perhaps, you have a space program in mind for longer term goals).

It was late in the 1950’s and man had yet to break the sound barrier but advances in technology, pushed by the burgeoning cold war, made it inevitable that aircraft would be taking men higher and faster than ever before.

So high in fact, that the challenges of ejecting from an aircraft at such extreme conditions became important to understand.

Colonel Joseph Kittinger had been a member of the US Air Force since 1950 where he distinguished himself with, among other things, the balloon altitude record of 96,760 feet in 1957. This experience led to his work with Project Excelsior where he made a series of three parachute jumps wearing a pressurized suit, from a helium balloon with an open gondola.

The first jump, from 76,400 feet in November, 1959 was a near tragedy when an equipment malfunction caused him to lose consciousness. Only the automatic parachute saved him (he went into a flat spin at a rotational velocity of 120 rpm; the g-force at his extremities was calculated to be over 22 times that of gravity, setting another record). Three weeks later he jumped again from 74,700 feet.

On August 16, 1960 he made the final jump from the Excelsior III at 102,800 feet. Towing a small drogue chute for stabilization, he fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds reaching a maximum speed of 614 mph before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet. He set records for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall (4 min), and fastest speed by a human through the atmosphere.

Fastest speed by a human through the atmosphere. I can’t tell you how much I wish that I could tell people at cocktail parties that I hold that record.

The footage of that jump speaks to me in the very same way that our early manned space program did. The sense of vastness, of insignificance, of space and of void stirs fascination and awe in me.

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