It was just over 2 years ago that Felix Baumgartner leapt from the Red Bull Stratos capsule from a height of 39KMs above the Earth’s atmosphere, breaking a record that had stood for over 50 years. The amount of effort that went into creating that project left many, including myself, thinking that Baumgartner’s record would stand for a pretty long time as few have the resources and desire to do something of that nature. However as it turns out one of Google’s Senior Vice Presidents, Alan Eustace, had been working on breaking that record in secret for the past 3 years and on Friday last week he descended to Earth from a height of 135,890 feet (41.4KM), shattering Baumgartner’s record by an incredible 7,000 feet.
The 2 jumps could not be more different, both technically and generally. For starters the Red Bull Stratos project was primarily a marketing exercise for Red Bull, the science that happened on the side was just a benefit for the rest of us. Eustace’s project on the other hand was done primarily in secret, with him eschewing any help from Google in order to avoid it becoming a marketing event. Indeed I don’t think anyone bar those working on the project knew that this was coming and the fact that they managed to achieve what Stratos did with a fraction of the funding speaks volumes to the team Eustace created to achieve this.
Looking at the above picture, which shows Eustace dangling from a tenuous tether as he ascends upwards, it’s plain to see that their approach was radically different to Stratos. Instead of building a capsule to transport Eustace, like Stratos and Kittinger’s project both did, they instead went for a direct tether to his pressure suit. This meant he spent the long journey skywards dangling face down which, whilst being nightmare material for some, would’ve given him an unparalleled view of the Earth disappearing from him. It also means that the load the balloon needed to carry was greatly reduced by comparison which likely allowed him to ascend much quicker.
Indeed the whole set up is incredibly bare bones with Eustace’s suit lacking many of the ancillary systems that Baumgartner’s had. One that amazed me was the lack of any kind of cooling system, something which meant that any heat he generated would stick around for an uncomfortably long period of time. To get around this he essentially remained motionless for the entire ascent, responding to ground control by moving one of this legs which they could monitor on camera. They did include a specially developed kind of parachute though, called Saber, which ensured that he didn’t suffer from the same control issues that Baumgartner did during his descent.
It’s simply astounding how Eustace and his team managed to achieve this, given their short time frame and comparatively limited budget. I’m also wildly impressed that they managed to keep this whole thing a secret for that period of time too as it would’ve been very easy for them to overshadow the Stratos project, especially given some of the issues they encountered. Whilst we might not all be doing high altitude jumps any time soon the technology behind this could find its way into safety systems in the coming generation of private space flight vehicles, something they will all need in no short order.