Orbital skydiving--possible?

Being an avid Star Trek geek, I read a few novels to supplement my television viewing. I considered it a way to counteract the mind-control rays the government beams from the set. Anyways, in Generations, there was a bit with Kirk skydiving from orbit. Is this possible, under present technology, to outfit a suit with enough of a heat-ablating system to keep the diver from turning into a cinder and slow down what could only be described as a two-meter long flesh meteor? What would a potential jumper go through, in terms of physical stresses and pretty sights, as (s)he barrels through the atmosphere at high Mach?

Yes. This was recently covered in a topic about space shuttle rescues.

However suchs systems were never actually developed as far as I know.

Presumably Kirk jumped from a stationary (hovering) spaceship rather than an orbiting one. Without the orbital speed there is much less heating, so you don’t need an elaborate heat shield.

Now I realize jumping from a stationary spaceship shouldn’t count as “from orbit,” but Star Trek seems to use the term “orbit” indiscriminately. The Enterprise has been known to go into a “stationary orbit” above a point in the northern hemisphere.

Some close attempts have already been made, most notably Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger’s freefall from a balloon at 102,800 feet back in 1960. This was the last in a series of higher and higher drops that he made.

Estimates of his maximum speed vary a little bit but at 90,000 feet he was going at least 600mph (extremely thin atmosphere = very little air resistance = very high terminal velocity). My 1986 Guinness Book claims 825mph at 90k (p.466-467) but subsequent estimates tend to be lower. Extremely fast anyhow.

He wore a pressure suit plus lots of camera & recording gear but nothing really unusual aside from that (i.e. he wasn’t riding on a sled of heat-resistant tiles or anything) and landed none the worse for wear.

A small (6’ dia IIRC) round drogue chute was deployed automatically a short bit after he left the gondola but this was done because there were concerns about stability at those speeds, not to make him fall any slower. Main canopy deployed at 18,000 feet (that’s extremely high for skydiving, we usually dump somewhere between 2,000 and 3,500 feet depending on experience).

So would it work from orbit proper? Beats me, but this is a start. There are at least two projects that I’ve heard of to beat this altitude record, both aiming for about 140,000 feet. Cheryl Stearns is one of the people, the other fellow’s name escapes me. Haven’t checked in a few years but haven’t heard any stories so probably still WIP.

Blue Skies!

A recent Wired or Popular Science recently did an article about jumping from space. There are a couple of people working toward jumps from space, or at least altitudes which can technically be considered space:


Maybe not quite orbit, but close.

A very good point. You couldn’t “jump” from an orbiting object, because you would continue to orbit alongside it. You would have to be launched backward with enough velocity to negate the object’s forward velocity.

Star Trek, and much of sci-fi, does tend to use the term “in orbit” to mean “in close proximity but above the atmosphere”.

What they call a “standard orbit” in Star Trek (at least in Kirk’s time) was actually hovering about 100 miles up; they stayed over one point on the planet’s surface so the transporters could still reach the people on the surface. This is also why, whenever anybody shut the engines down, they started to spiral in rather than continue to “orbit” for another hundred years or so.

Since they can’t teleport people through the planet in TNG, I’m assuming they’re either continuing this practice, or they’re in a more realistice orbit and if they get the message that somebody needs to beam up when they’re on the other side of the planet, they just hit the gas and whoosh they’re on the right side of the planet for the transport.

There was also a Voyager episode where B’ellana took up orbital skydiving in a special heat-resistant suit. Made as much sense as most tech in the Trek universe.