Special to the American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 15, 2001 -- In 11 months, Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Cheryl Stearns hopes to be in a 365-foot polyester balloon on the edge of space 24 miles up and looking down on earth.
If all goes as planned, she'll jump from an open gondola at 130,000 feet and begin a freefall descent that would make her the first human to reach a speed of more than 800 mph and first woman to break the sound barrier without a vehicle. She would shatter the current world record, a transsonic freefall from 102,800 feet set by Air Force Capt. Joe Kittinger Jr. on Aug. 16, 1960.
"It's another challenge. It's another impossible, but possible goal," Stearns said. Stratoquest, as the project is called, will add yet another record to the already long list of aerial accomplishments that Stearns has to her name. "It's the unknown again. No one really knows what it will be like."
Stearns' journeys into the blue began 28 years ago in the arid skies above Arizona when she was 17. She begged her mother for the money to jump from an airplane, but what should have been one jump turned to several, and several turned to hundreds and then thousands.
"I always wanted to jump. I always wanted to know what a 120 mph freefall was like," Stearns said. "It was a problem getting my parents to sign the permission slip. My mother finally signed the slip and she gave me the 40 bucks to make my first jump.
"I was just going to make the one jump, but you had to do a static line before you could freefall, so you had to wait until 20 jumps to make your 30-second delay jump. And I said, 'When I get to that point, then I'll quit.'"
Stearns never quit after her first freefall. While ascending to altitude during her initial parachute training, she developed a curiosity for aircraft. She told her father she wanted to learn to fly. Thinking it would stop her from jumping out of airplanes, Stearns' father paid for her flight school. He was wrong. She rarely spends too much time on the ground, and she has soared into the record books as the most decorated skydiver in the world.
Stearns is the current and 21-time U.S. women's skydiving champion. She has 30 world records and for a time held four different world records at once, a feat no other parachutist has ever matched. She has a dizzying 14,000 jumps to her credit and in 1995 she jumped into Guinness World Records, marking her page in history by logging the most parachute jumps in 24 hours -- a staggering 352 jumps. vAs a citizen soldier, Stearns is attached to the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, at Fort Bragg, N.C., where she serves in the Army Reserve as a supply sergeant. She was the first woman to earn a spot on the Golden Knights team, in 1977.
"I didn't want to be on the team just because I was a woman," Stearns said. "I wanted to be on the team and be recognized as the best person on the team. I was beating everyone out there. I was beating all the men out there in the world and that's what I wanted my position to be based on."
Stearns' infectious competitive spirit quickly spread throughout the team once she joined them. Her desire to be the best made the team more cohesive.
"They weren't battling against me. It made us all pull together," she said of her teammates. "I didn't have the problems other women have faced when they're the first female in a unit with harassment and things like that."
Stearns served two active duty hitches with the Golden Knights in her continuing 24-year military career, but now she serves part-time, juggling a demanding reserve military career with an even more demanding professional civilian life. She is a command pilot for US Airways with nearly 15,000 hours logged in 737s and one of the company's senior pilots in the mid-Atlantic.
"It took me 13 years to get the top position as a pilot. It's like making general," she said.
Stearns will train for eight months in preparation for the Stratoquest jump. She flies about 700 hours per year and jumps 600 to 700 times per year. She will don a pressurized suit similar to what astronauts wear on space walks to protect her from temperatures that can reach minus 90 degrees. She will have life support systems and a helmet with a heads-up-display showing altitude, Global Positioning System readings and her orientation to the earth.
The Stratoquest jump is not just about breaking records. Researchers will gather scientific data about astronaut egress systems for future space vehicles. They will also study the effects of transonic acceleration on the human body in addition to a multitude of other space-related experiments.
Stearns' international team of researchers, aviation and parachuting experts and sponsors and supporters has already started work to get the project off the ground and completed their first phase of training in Austin, Texas.
"The biggest thing that I'm looking forward to is sitting in that open gondola, with the doors open and watching the earth go away," Stearns said with anticipation in her voice. Although the jump is nearly one year away, she acts as if she is jumping in a few minutes. "Can you see yourself 24 miles high and riding up?"
(First Lt. Steven J. Alvarez is assigned to the Public Affairs and Liaison Directorate in the Office of the Chief, Army Reserve, Washington, D.C.) Photos - U.S. Army
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