“No way you could do much beyond Mach 2,” agrees Stearns. “The speed is just too much.”
Even NASA never came up with a better system for the space shuttle than the one developed after the Challenger disaster that involves a telescoping escape pole for astronauts to slide down via an open hatch on the left side of the orbiter. That still wouldn’t have saved the Challenger crew; the system is designed to work only after the solid rocket boosters finish their burn and fall away, and the orbiter has slowed to subsonic speed and descended to an altitude of 25,000 feet—not a reassuring window of opportunity.
“For astronauts going to orbit, or coming back,” says Stearns, “if something goes really wrong, you just gotta say, ‘It wasn’t my day.’”
Such thoughts haven’t dampened the enthusiasm of any of the contenders vying to make the world’s highest jump.
“I believe that unless you’re crazy,” says Truglia, “and I’m not crazy, you should live your dreams and go for things you want to do. There are all sorts of exciting challenges out there for all of us. The worst thing I can imagine is to get old and say, ‘I wish I’d done that.’”