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Northampton students learn from record-breaking skydive

Eric Newman teaches a mechanical physics class at Northampton High School Tuesday morning.
CAROL LOLLIS

Eric Newman teaches a mechanical physics class at Northampton High School Tuesday morning. CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner survived his plunge Sunday from 24 miles above Roswell, N.M., in a pressurized suit, setting records for the highest, fastest jump in history.

It was also arguably the most-watched skydive in history, with nearly 7.3 million viewers following sponsor RedBull’s live YouTube streaming of Baumgartner’s jump, according to the Associated Press.

Newman, who had originally planned on his students watching the death-defying dive together last week, had to make do with a replay after Baumgartner, 43, cancelled two previous attempts due to unfavorable weather conditions.

Even so, the event offered a powerful teachable moment, Newman said, in an interview just after his classes ended on Monday at NHS.

“The students were amazed he’d stuck the landing,” he said. “In some of the footage from the camera on his chest, you can see the sun moving in his visor and you get the full impact of the speed he was going at.”

Expert observers calculated that Baumgartner reached a maximum speed of 833.9 mph, faster than the speed of sound. His descent from 119,846 feet lasted just over nine minutes.

By working with the numbers, Newman said his students discovered that Baumgartner had not broken records for the length of time spent in freefall. That honor remains with Joe Kittinger, who leaped from 19.5 miles up in 1960, he said. Kittinger was Baumgartner’s main contact at mission control on Sunday.

“The other jump was lower in the atmosphere and so he was a little slower,” Newman said. “Felix was going so fast that he didn’t stay in the air as long. It’s completely counterintuitive, but that’s how it works.

Other physics principles the jump helped illustrate were motion and acceleration and rotational inertia, Newman said. The latter came up in relation to a spin that Baumgartner got into at one point that could have torn his pressurized suit and created lethal trouble for his body fluids.

“It’s just like in a washing machine where the water gets spun outwards,” said Newman, who is filling a one-year appointment in the NHS science department. “It was really his training as a military skydiver that allowed him to get out of that one.”

Newman, who lives in Wendell, watched the jump live on a laptop Sunday from the porch of the Wendell Country Store with a small crowd of friends and neighbors.

So, how often do current events coincide with his classroom lessons?

“Not that often,” Newman said.

“I’m always looking out for that and I bring things into the classroom regularly,” he added. “This one was just so big and dramatic.”

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