Weekend Reading: Kiss the Sky

In this weekly roundup, we scour the Web for our favorite long-form magazine and newspaper articles, collecting them here and on Longreads and Twitter. This installment focuses on jumping out of space gondolas, terraforming Venus, and Google Earth.

Captain Joseph Kittinger begins his 19-mile descent from the Excelsior III.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

"When I came to, I was floating lazily down beneath the beautiful canopy of the emergency chute."

While everyone is waiting breathlessly for Felix Baumgarten to stop freaking out about the wind and just jump already (though I guess it’s totally understandable to not want to die for a Red Bull energy drink promotional stunt), let’s take a moment to appreciate his spiritual predecessor, Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II. In the run up to Baumgarten’s dive, National Geographic has kindly re-published Kittinger’s account of his own jump from the gondola Excelsior III, which set the current records for the highest, fastest, and longest skydive in history.

Project Excelsior (latin for "ever upward," nerds) was a military research initiative intent on improving jet pilot safety in the event of high-altitude bailouts. Kittinger, then a captain in the Air Force, was chosen to test new "multi-stage" parachute designs that would allow pilots to escape the hostile upper atmosphere as quickly as possible, then slow their descent without killing them. During his first jump from 76,400 feet, Kittinger lost consciousness. He was only saved by his main parachute, which was set to open automatically at 10,000 feet.

"When I came to, I was floating lazily down beneath the beautiful canopy of the emergency chute," he said. "I want to tell you I had a long thank-you session with the good Lord right then and there."

Just three weeks later, Kittinger went ahead with a second test, jumping successfully from 74,700 feet. On his third, record-setting attempt, Kittinger jumped from 102,800 feet (19 miles). He fell for four minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 614mph. It wasn’t until after the test that Kittinger revealed that the pressure seal around his right hand had broken on the ascent, causing excruciating pain as his hand swelled to twice its normal size. Not wanting to make a fuss, Kittinger kept it to himself.

Kittinger has mentored Baumgarten during his five years of preparation and will be in radio contact during his 23-mile dive, where he is predicted to reach speeds over 700mph. But even if the jump is a success, will he really have surpassed Kittinger, who jumped with inferior technology, in a time before we had even reached the moon, and whose bravery helped save many more lives? It’s worth thinking about. Kittinger made his jump in 1960, eight months before Yuri Gagarin went into space. He pressed the boundaries of human reach. Baumgartner's achievment, no matter how great, will still be well within them.

Anyway, here’s your weekend reading! Enjoy.

Read the original record setting skydive from the man himself. Joseph Kittinger, National Geographic.

"To understand the need for a high-altitude escape system, consider the plight of an airman who has to bail out above 20,000 feet [6,000 meters]. He faces two choices, either of which could be fatal. Should he open his chute immediately after bail-out from a speeding craft, he risks death from his canopy's opening shock, from lack of oxygen, or from severe cold. Flat spin imperils him if he tries to fall free to lower, livable altitudes before opening his chute. His body may whirl like a runaway propeller. Flat spin is a characteristic of any falling object that is aerodynamically unstable. Dummies dropped from balloons up to 100,000 feet [30,500 meters] have attained 200 revolutions per minute, whereas tests show that 140 r.p.m. would be harmful, possibly fatal."

Mars has been the focus of space exploration (and cultural infatuation) for quite some time. But Venus might give us a chance to better understand what’s happening to our own planet right now. George Dvorsky, io9.

"Should carbon emissions continue to increase at the current rate, they warn, we may hit a critical tipping point after which a positive feedback loop will be created between the surface of the Earth and the increasingly thick and opaque atmosphere above it. Hypothetically, the effect would instigate a rapid and progressively escalating rise in temperature that would eventually result in the extermination of all life on the planet and the evaporation of the oceans. No one knows for sure if this will be the ultimate climax of human-caused global warming, but it's a possibility that clearly needs to be taken seriously. It's a genuine existential risk. And disturbingly, there is precedent for this right here in our solar system. Scientists are quite certain that Venus went through a runaway greenhouse effect when it was young and when it still had oceans. In those early days, and as the sun got brighter, Venus' oceans began to boil and evaporate into the atmosphere, where it eventually leaked out into space. Today, and as a consequence, Venus has an absolutely massive amount of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, the result of poor carbon recycling (which is facilitated by the presence of liquid water)."

At five years old Saroo Munshi Khan became separated from his brother in a Calcutta train station and ended up living on the streets. Twenty years later, he found his family again ... using Google Earth. David Kushner, Vanity Fair.

"Finding his hometown and his family presented more challenges than anything he’d ever tackled before; he hadn’t been home since he was five and didn’t know the name of the town where he was born. He tried looking for the city where he’d fallen asleep on the train, but he no longer remembered any Hindi, and the names on the map swam before him: Brahmapur, Badarpur, Baruipur, Bharatpur—a seemingly endless string of similar-sounding names. He could muster only a few landmarks to look for on Google Earth: there was the train station, the dam that flowed like a waterfall after the monsoons, and the fountain where he had cut himself climbing over the fence. He also remembered seeing a bridge and a large industrial tank near the more distant station where he was separated from his brother. As he saw the mass of India glowing on his screen, the question was: Where to start?"

Manaslu is already one of the more dangerous peaks on the planet, but commercial guides are making it even worse. Mike Marolt, Outside.

"As the reports from Manaslu continue to filter in, it is becoming apparent that many people who were slated for Cho Oyu changed their plans. The normal 50 to 100 people at base camp ballooned to 300. Combined with the lack of safe camps, this is a recipe for disaster. You could argue that it was only by good fortune that the number of fatalities was not 10 or even 20 times greater. There is room for 300 people at the spot where the avalanche victims died."

International travel and foreign dollars have turned Mumbai’s airport district into one of the worst slums in the entire country. Katherine Boo, The New Yorker.

"The primary industry here is the gathering of airport garbage for recycling—work made a little less miserable by expanded global markets and India’s surging G.D.P. Over the past five years, there were enough water bottles, earbuds, Diet Coke cans, used tampon applicators, batteries, and copies of Indian Vogue to lift the majority of families over the World Bank’s poverty line, which is currently 22 rupees a day in India’s cities. Jobs at the hotels would have lifted residents far higher, but management wanted people who spoke English, not just Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Nepali, or any of the six or eight other languages spoken in the airport slums. Everyone knew that management also wanted people who were light-skinned; many Gautam Nagar residents are dark from work in the sun. Still, recycling had, over time, turned most of the slum’s tarp roofs into tin ones, under which some families had laid down ceramic-tile floors. But last fall, when bank lending slowed worldwide, construction projects stalled, and the demand for recycled materials plummeted, Gautam Nagar’s link to the global markets started pushing it backward."

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