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.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Felix Baumgartner leapt from his balloon 39KMs above the Earth’s surface, breaking Joseph Kittinger’s long standing record. The whole journey took only minutes and the entire journey back down captivated millions of people who watched on with bated breath. Curiously though we only saw one perspective of it for a long time, that of the observation cameras chronicling Felix’s journey. Now we can have front row seats to what Felix himself saw on the way down, including the harrowing spin that threatened to end everything in tragedy.
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.
For all my love of aviation and aeronautics I’ve never taken the opportunity to leap from a flying aircraft to experience a glympse of what weightlessness would feel like for a brief moment in time. It’s not due to fear, although I did struggle with heights up until I started rock climbing as a teenager, more I’d say it was due to sheer laziness on my own part. There’s a recurring joke amongst our group of friends that we should go sky diving at the end of the year, only for it to never happen. We’ll make excuse after excuse for not doing it, but in reality we’re just really lazy.
That doesn’t stop me from being interested in the sport however. One of the most popular ways for you to get flight hours up is to become a sky diving pilot. They do an exceptional amount of hours ferrying people up there and usually all your flight costs are paid for (you getting paid is a grey area in Australia, elsewhere is downright illegal if you’re not licensed commercially). So when news came my way of a skydiver attempting to break the record for highest jump ever I was instantly intrigued:
A “space diver” will try to smash the nearly 50-year-old record for the highest jump this year, becoming the first person to go supersonic in freefall. The stunt could help engineers design escape systems for space flights.
On 16 August 1960, US Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger made history by jumping out of a balloon at an altitude of some 31,333 metres. “I stood up and said a prayer and stepped off,” he recalled (see Space diving: The ultimate extreme sport).
Since then, many have tried to break that record but none have succeeded – New Jersey native Nick Piantanida actually died trying in 1966. Now Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner has announced he will make the attempt, with help from Kittinger and sponsorship from the energy drink company Red Bull.
I’ve heard about many people attempting to break this record before and have always shared their disappointment when they’ve failed. Still when I first heard about a similar attempt a year or so ago I decided to look up the person who held the current record, Joe Kittinger. His record stands as part of experiments to make sure that pilots ejecting at high altitudes wouldn’t go into a fatal flat spin when return to earth at extremely high speeds (such as those achieved by the SR-71 which exceeds Mach 3). His work also paved the way for something novel that NASA has only recently begun to test: orbital skydiving.
For any space mission the trip and back down is the most dangerous time as that’s when huge changes in energy are occurring. On the way up you’re being accelerated to an equivalent of Mach 25 and when you’re coming back down you have to lose all of that speed somehow. For nearly all spacecraft this is done via what’s called an Ablative Heat Shield, which basically melts away and produces a gas layer that keeps most of the heat away from the space craft. These are extremely heavy and in an industry where any weight you carry up means that much more fuel and less payload alternatives are constantly being searched for. This research then spun off a very interesting idea.
NASA, in their quest to find better alternatives to ablative shields started to look at exotic designs and materials. One of them was proposed by a partner agency Aerojet which consisted of what amounts to a giant nose cone shaped balloon covered in a wire cloth impregnated with silicon rubber and silicon carbide dust. The shield itself wasn’t meant for spacecraft, it was meant as an escape craft for astronauts who were stuck on a space station with no where else to go. It was, in essence, a space parachute.
As crazy as it sounds the idea had some legs and NASA has been investigating it thoroughly. In fact last year saw the test of IRVE, which was a slightly more advanced version of the Aerojet proposal. All the tests looked good and whilst we’re a fair way away from strapping an actual person to one of these things and seeing if they can make it back to earth safely it does show that there are many ways of improving safety in space. I can only imagine the space liner of the future will be packed with enough of these to ensure all future private astronauts can return to earth safely.
It’s this kind of envelope pushing that drives the fledgling space industry forward. Whilst people like Baumgartner are seen as the extreme dare devils of today they will be looked back upon as those who pushed the limits of our perception and forced a paradigm shift amongst us all. I wait for the day that for the cost of say a concord flight will buy you an orbital sky dive.
What a rush that would be!