American skydiver to jump from edge of space

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An American female skydiver plans to set a world record for the highest free-fall by jumping to earth from the edge of space.

In a feat which could lead to an astronaut bailing out of a space shuttle, Cheryl Stearns plans to make the 25-mile jump in 2005. She is preparing with the aid of the US space agency Nasa but faces competition for the rarefied air at 130,000ft (39,640m) from two other dare devils.

Michel Fournier, who is French, and Rodd Millner, an Australian former commando, have their eyes on the same feat. In August M. Fournier was in the final stages of launching a balloon that would carry him to the stratosphere when its canopy split, ending the latest in a series of attempts over the past three years.

But Ms Stearns, who is a champion skydiver, told New Scientist magazine that her aim was not just to set a record. Her jump from the stratospheric height in March 2005 could benefit shuttle crews facing a situation like those on board the Columbia, which disintegrated when entering the Earth's atmosphere on 1 February, at a height of 200,000ft and travelling at about 12,500mph (20,000kmh).

"Shuttle crews do not have much time to prepare for bail-out emergencies," said Ms Stearns. "Our mission will be to help researchers understand how pressure suits, and humans, react at 130,000ft. Nothing has been tested above 102,800ft."

The latter height is the present record, set in August 1960 by the US Air Force's Colonel Joseph Kittinger, for the highest parachute jump. That took 13 minutes and 45 seconds.

Ms Stearns - and M. Fournier and Mr Millner - plan to wear complete spacesuits, as there is negligible oxygen at their target altitude. Ms Stearns estimated she would reach Mach 1, the speed of sound, in 47 seconds but wouldslow down when she reached 100,000ft, where the atmosphere thickens.Even there, she wouldbe three times higher than the summit of Everest.