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Joseph Kittinger: The First High-Altitude Jumper

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Next week, “Fearless Felix” Baumgartner will attempt the highest, fastest free fall in history when he leaps out of a capsule 23 miles above Roswell, New Mexico wearing just a pressurized suit and helmet. But Baumgartner isn’t the first person to make a crazy jump like this. That distinction belongs to Joseph Kittinger, who made a series of high altitude jumps between 1959 and 1960.

In order to build space capsules that would protect humans at high altitudes, the Air Force needed to know how people would fare many miles above the Earth. So in 1957, they recruited Kittinger—a young jet pilot in the Flight Test Division of the Air Force Missile Development Center—to a pre-Space Age military project called Manhigh. He went through a series of trials, including a 24-hour claustrophobia test in the capsule and a test in the high-altitude, low-temperature test chamber, before the actual mission. On June 2, 1957, Kittinger piloted an aluminum-alloy capsule carried by a balloon to 97,000 feet, setting a balloon altitude record. But Manhigh was just the first step. In Project Excelsior, Kittinger jumped from the capsule, which hovered at the edge of space, three times over the course of two years.

Leaping into the Unknown

The first jump, in November 1959 from 76,400 feet, was almost Kittinger’s last. The sun was blinding despite the negative-104 degree temperature. As Kittinger fell, his helmet nearly lifted off his shoulders, and his pilot chute choked him into a blackout.

Thankfully, his back-up chute opened, and Kittinger survived—and, amazingly, was eager to make the next jump. It occurred just a month later, 74,700 feet above the Jornada del Muerto (which translates to “Route of the Dead Man”). The issues were ironed out, the jump was successful, and Kittinger was ready for the third and final Excelsior mission in August of 1960, from a height of 102,800 feet—more than 19 miles.

His only protection was his pressurized suit, which didn’t totally work. During the ascent, the pressurization in his right glove failed, causing his hand to swell to twice its normal size. Kittinger, however, was determined to make the jump, so he didn’t report his swollen hand until he was at altitude. Falling through 90,000 feet, the skyjumper reached the speed of 614 mph. By the time he touched down, Kittinger held records for the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere.

And when Baumgartner makes his attempt next week, Kittinger will be there: Not only did he advise Fearless Felix, he’ll serve as CapCom (Capsule Communications) for the mission, and be the only radio contact with Baumgartner during the fall.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures
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Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

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