Bowie Tribute Could Have Used Free-Falling Humans, Not Stamps

Royal Air

It’s been over a year since David Bowie’s passing, but there’s been no shortage of ways the world continues to remember the Thin White Duke. The latest is a collection of 52 sets of stamps commemorating the musician’s recording career, launched into space on helium balloons, and set to fall back from the stratosphere. The event is clearly inspired by Bowie’s 1976 science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Yes, the tributes are getting a little more literal as the years go on. The Starman tribute will definitely be something to behold. (God knows we could probably hold off a Goblin King reenactment, however.)

Each set is a collection of ten stamps featuring images from Bowie’s albums and other artwork related to his career. The UK’s Royal Mail, which is sponsoring the event, is inviting the public to guess where the balloons have landed after being sent into the sky on Monday. Each balloon even had a camera attached to them — and viewers can take a gander at what the stamps’ ascendance and freefall looked like. The Royal Mail is holding a contest to see who can guess where the sets landed back on Earth.

The whole stunt is weird and wonderful, but theoretically we could have actually set up something where a man actually fell back to Earth.

Human free fall from the stratosphere is real and possible. The first stratospheric dive was in 1959, when former U.S. Air Force Colonel Joseph William Kittinger II dove from a high altitude balloon. He set a skydive from over 19.26 miles high.

More recently, professional daredevil Felix Baumgartner jumped to the ground from 23 miles up in the air in 2012 and became the first skydiver to break the sound barrier on his own, before deploying his parachute to safely land. Computer scientist Alan Eustace dove from a balloon at 25 miles in altitude, breaking Baumgartner’s diving and sound barrier records.

These are insane stunts, but they’re not impossible. The physics of such a free fall actually ensure that, at some point, a diver will stop accelerating due to the drag face created by molecules in the air. Baumgartner and Eustace each reached a terminal velocity during their dive, and actually started slowing down.

A selection from the Royal Mail's Bowie-themed stamp collection.

The main concern is to ensure you have a suit on which can withstand such intense air resistance and friction. Otherwise, you’re likely to go from being the Man Who Fell to Earth into the Man Whose Face and Body Melted Like a Poor Meteorite.

NASA has, in the past, explored methods of evacuation from orbital spacecraft for astronauts through free fall methods. So far, the whole “vaporizing-upon-reentry” thing has prevented any serious effort to develop a free fall plan. But it’s entirely possible future technology will allow us to one day give Bowie the tribute he deserves. We can be heroes, just for one day.