Tomorrow I’ll be watching two flying objects: the Phoenix Lander, a $420 million dollar spacecraft descending towards the polar plains of Mars, and Michael Fournier, a 64-year-old Frenchman who will be hurtling towards the bucolic pastures of Saskatchewan.
The Phoenix Lander comes equipped with a robotic arm camera, surface stereo imager, and thermal and evolved-gas analyzer. Fournier comes equipped with a space suit lined with wool underwear. If all goes well, both Lander and Fournier will deploy parachutes. The Mars Lander will spend its post-touchdown period testing the Martian soil to see whether water exists near the Martian poles and if it could support life. Fournier will spend his post jump moments speaking to the press and thanking his supporters. Fournier’s jump, if successful, will establish a record for highest human balloon flight and break altitude, speed, and time records for freefall. Not that this makes any difference to Fournier I guess:
“It’s not a question of the world records,” Fournier wrote via e-mail through an interpreter on Friday from his base in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. “What is important are what the results from the jump will bring to the safety of the conquest of space. However, the main question that is being asked today by all scientists is, can a man survive when crossing the sound barrier?”
Whether someone can break the sound barrier without becoming a human flank steak, is, I guess, a question that burns in the mind of Michel Fournier. But it is not “the main question that is being asked today by all scientists.” If Fournier really believes this is about science and not about personal glory, wouldn’t it be simpler (and safer) to send a crash-test dummy up instead? After all we have machines nowadays that measure pressure and temperature and others, called transmitters and receivers, that can relay this sort of information to earth. Maybe this was cutting edge technology back in the age of the V-2, but its pretty routine today. Oh, and no one dies.