Getting back down from orbit is no easy task, even when you’re doing it under ideal conditions. This can be made even more complex if the return is due to some form of emergency that has forced your hand and because of this NASA looked into many different ways of getting astronauts back down to earth. One of them, called the MOOSE (and no I’m not making this up), was essentially a system that would allow a spacesuit equipped astronaut to essentially space dive back down to earth, all contained in something not much larger than a suit case. Whilst we’ve settled on the more sane option of using the proven Soyuz capsules that doesn’t mean our obsession with leaping back down to earth from ever increasing heights has subsided and today brings us a new record in that area.
Early this morning, after several weather delays due to high winds in the Roswell area, Felix Baumgartner of the Red Bull Stratos project jumped from his platform suspended tenuously under a giant helium balloon. For the next 4 minutes and 19 seconds Felix was in complete freefall as he rocketed towards earth hitting speeds of 1137KM/h, becoming the first human to break the sound barrier unassisted. A total of 9 minutes and 3 seconds after he stepped off the platform some 39KMs he touched back down on earth and waltzed right into several world records.
It might surprise you to know that Felix actually broke records today, ones that have stood uncontested for over 50 years. Back in the late 1950’s the United States Air Force needed to test new parachute systems that they designed for pilots who would be ejecting at high speed in some of the newly constructed high altitude craft. Thus they created Project Excelsior (again not making this up) which was essentially a series of high altitude jumps from helium balloons to test said parachutes. As part of this Captain Joseph Kittinger set many records with his jump from 31KM up and actually still holds the record for longest free fall at 4 minutes and 36 seconds as Felix’s higher speed cut down on his fall time dramatically.
It’s also worth noting that Kittinger is a consultant on the Stratos project, all those years after he set those records.
Both Kittinger and Baumgartner’s weren’t exactly trouble free events with both of them suffer issues that could have been cause to abort the missions. Kittinger for instance suffered a loss of pressure around his right hand during the ascent which made it swell up to twice its regular size (an incredibly painful thing to have happen to you). There is of course a very easy solution to this however Kittinger held off on informing base command until after he had completed his jump. Felix on the other hand had problems with the heater in his visor causing it to fog up several times. This could be very dangerous as obscured vision could have led to him not being able to tell if he was in a spin or not, something which did actually happen during his descent. He recovered quickly however and the rest of the descent down was completed as expected.
Whilst the primary purpose of the Red Bull Stratos project was always to break records (something I mentioned 2 years ago when I first talked about this project) there are some notable gains for science as well. The data gathered from the descent will be used to design the next generation of full pressure suits that will be used by high altitude pilots and astronauts. The helium balloon used is also the largest one that has even been constructed and the insights gained into creating it will help with other balloon based projects. There’s also the incredible amount of press that this jump has generated which will (hopefully) help inspire the next generation.
My congratulations goes out to Felix and his entire team at the Red Bull Stratos project as what they’ve achieved today is simply incredible and they have shown that records that have stood for decades are just waiting to be broken. Whilst we probably won’t see a repeat performance for some time I can help but think of the possibilities for what will come next as at 39KM up you’re pretty much at the limit of balloon technology. The only step after that is getting into territory where a lot of innovation will be required and I really do hope there’s people out there considering it, even if just for the record breaking attempt. We humans are an incredibly capable bunch and with feats like this I’m incredibly proud to be a member of such an amazing species.