Breaking the record for the longest, fastest free-fall means jumping into a near vacuum and hurtling toward earth at the speed of sound. This year, two men are racing to do just that – but the hardest part may be getting off the ground.
By Jennifer Bogo
A spacesuit is not Felix Baumgartner’s typical attire. He’s used to moving freely, his arms and legs swimming easily through the air, his thin flightsuit rippling against his skin in the sky over Taipei, or Rio de Janeiro, or Warsaw; he usually feels wind rushing across the square cut of his jaw. Late on a Friday night in February, he moves across the small room stiffly, one appendage at a time, like the Michelin Man, or a boy in a very, very thick snowsuit.
A blue light flashes and a buzzer sounds. Inside the vertical wind tunnel, air whooshes up at Baumgartner at 210 km/h, lifting his body in the puffy white pressure suit parallel to the ground.
He oscillates for a moment, porpoising noticeably. “His chest pack is catching a little bit of air,” observes Dan Murray, Baumgartner’s flight surgeon, watching from outside the Plexiglas window.
Then, Baumgartner’s form begins to stabilise, hovering concave atop the column of wind. “There we go, he’s got it,” Murray says. “He figured it out.”
A professional skydiver and BASE jumper from Austria, the 41-year-old Baumgartner has already set many world records: highest BASE jump from a building, lowest BASE jump, first person to BASE jump from the 343-metre Millau Viaduct in France. He’s even jumped from an aircraft 10 000 metres over Dover on the English coast, so that he could free-fall 35 kilometres across the English Channel wearing a carbon-fibre wing. The spacesuit is necessary for his most audacious record yet, the one that would answer questions about human endurance that have lingered (including in the pages of Popular Mechanics) for the last half-century: the highest and fastest free-fall in history – a leap from the upper stratosphere.
The existing record of 102 800 feet (31 333 metres), established by US Air Force test pilot Joe Kittinger, has remained untouched for 50 years. By the end of this year, Baumgartner – backed by energy drink company Red Bull and advised by Kittinger himself – plans to surpass that, rising to over 36 000 metres in a pressurised capsule dangling beneath a high-altitude balloon. When he steps out, he’ll hurtle toward earth at supersonic speed, breaking the sound barrier with only his spacesuit as the vehicle.
At least, that’s the theory. In practice, it has never been done, which is why Baumgartner is training so rigorously now. Today’s test is to determine whether he can actually skydive in a pressure suit inflated to 24 kPa. Bustling around him in the facility in Perris, California, are members of the Red Bull Stratos team, chosen for their extensive experience in fields such as aerospace, medicine, fabrication, electronics and skydiving.
But Kittinger’s record will be difficult to break. “The parachutes have gotten better, the pressure suits have gotten better, the life-support systems have gotten better, the communications have gotten better,” Kittinger says, “but the danger and the hazard of being at that altitude has not changed one bit. It’s extremely hostile.”
Others have tried, and died, over the last five decades. And this year, Baumgartner’s not the only person mounting an effort: Michel Fournier, a parachutist and former colonel of the French army, also has his sights set on the stratosphere. This will be his fourth attempt to pilot a balloon to 40 000 metres, and if his skydive is successful, it will be the culmination of a 22-year dream. As Red Bull Stratos methodically moves through a scientific test-flight programme – building, testing and simulating each scenario, including the countless things that can go wrong – Fournier has enlisted French and North American crews to join him at a launch site in Western Canada. Determined to beat Baumgartner into the sky and the history books, he’s skipping straight to the big jump.
When Excelsior III lifted off from the desert floor of New Mexico on 16 August 1960, it was only Joe Kittinger’s 33rd parachute jump. He wore a partial-pressure suit like those designed for high-altitude pilots; the Project Mercury astronauts hadn’t yet flown. As he ascended at 360 metres per minute in an open gondola, passing through temperatures of -70 degrees, the air bladders in his suit inflated to compensate for the reduced atmospheric pressure – all except for those in his right glove. Calculating that he could execute the mission without the use of that hand, which began to swell painfully, he declined to inform ground control.
When he reached peak altitude, Kittinger floated for 11 minutes toward his target, looking out over a “deep, dark indescribable blue” with wispy white clouds that were luminous from the Sun.
With his hand twice its normal size, and burdened by 70 kg of equipment, he completed the 46 items on his checklist, pushed a button to start the cameras and said a quick prayer. Then he stepped over the threshold. “I rolled over on to my back and could see the capsule and the balloon roaring into space at a fantastic rate,” he says. “And then I realised the balloon was standing still and it was me going down.” Accelerating at 9,8 metres per second squared, he eventually reached 988 km/h – just shy of the speed of sound.
Kittinger was already familiar with the 23 200 metres, a timer on his multistage parachute activated early and a pilot chute deployed only two and a half seconds after he had left the gondola. It pulled out a drogue, but with too little air density to billow out, it wound around Kittinger’s neck. He went into a flat spin; blood surged to his brain, and he passed out. At 5 500 metres the main canopy, sensing the change in barometric pressure, automatically deployed, but it tangled in the drogue as Kittinger continued to tumble toward the ground. At 3 300 metres the reserve chute deployed, and at 1 800 metres, finally freed of the main canopy, it fully unfurled.
But in August, the redesigned gear worked perfectly, and Kittinger spent the 4 minutes and 36 seconds of his freefall assessing it thoroughly: “I was a test pilot, and my job was to gather information,” he says. “I never had an opportunity to just relax and contemplate what was going on.” The drogue chute Kittinger used to stabilise his fall, and the automatic-opener device on his reserve parachute, are now standard gear among high-altitude pilots and parachutists. His partial-pressure suit evolved into the suits used by space shuttle astronauts.
“To me, the big difference between Project Excelsior and everything that’s come after is that Project Excelsior had a clear, justifiable and urgent mission,” says Craig Ryan, coauthor with Kittinger of Come up and get me, a biography published this June. “It was to prove the viability of emergency escape from super-high-altitude vehicles. . is was necessary work, because for the first time we were sending pilots and astronauts to extraordinary heights, and we didn’t really know how to get them back if anything went wrong.”
History has shown there are many ways to die at high altitudes. Pyotr Dolgov, a parachutist for a Soviet ballooning programme, leaped from the Volga at 28 640 metres in 1962. His faceplate cracked and his spacesuit depressurised; he died almost immediately from hypoxia – oxygen rushing to leave his body for the vacuum of space. In May 1966, a gondola carrying American skydiver Nick Piantanida rose to 17 500 metres before he either accidentally or purposely opened his own faceplate. His team brought him back down, but he slipped into a coma and died months later. Since then, not a single super-high-altitude manned balloon ight has left the ground.
If Baumgartner or Fournier succeeds, the technology and techniques they demonstrate would be of interest to Nasa, the US military’s suborbital spaceflight programme, and – most of all – the burgeoning industry of private space. A handful of companies are now racing to develop technology that would take civilians into low Earth orbit. “But none of them are really thinking beyond what’s called shirt-sleeve technology, where they’re going to put somebody in a regular jumpsuit in a space capsule and they’re going to fly,” says Art Thompson, Red Bull Stratos’s technical project director. “We’re looking at the next step. What happens if you need to get out?”
The nacelle belonging to 66-year-old Michel Fournier looks like a relic of a bygone space programme. Covered by quilted silver insulation, it’s roughly the shape of a water heater and not that much bigger. Inside, there is just enough room for a single seat and some electronic controls; stickers along the top read “Who Dares Wins” in both English and French. In fact, Fournier himself is an artefact of such a programme: a skydiving project by the French Defence Ministry to test equipment for the first European space shuttle. The project was cancelled in the late 1980s and the shuttle shortly after, but Fournier never gave up the ambition behind it.
In mid-May, the nacelle sits inside a small metal hangar on the far end of a tiny air. eld in North Battleford, in Canada’s Saskatchewan province. Fournier’s countrymen work behind long pressed-wood tables covered with power tools, parts and a battered grey space helmet; a cardboard box containing food and a bottle of merlot sits nearby. The North American half of the team can be found in the back of the hangar, where they are busy installing a helium vent valve in the thin plastic balloon spilling out of a large crate.
Fournier’s past attempts have been plagued by balloon problems. Weather ended his first try at the record, in 2002, after wind ripped away the in ation tube. When his team tried to launch again the following year, the balloon itself ruptured. In 2008, everyone cheered as the gossamerthin craft floated up into the sky, but then gasped as they realised the capsule hadn’t. A mechanism linking the two had fired prematurely, leaving Fournier on the ground.
Author Craig Ryan was there for the first attempt and observes the team did not function as a well-oiled machine. “These projects need more than a daredevil,” he says. “Daredevils are a dime a dozen.” Such endeavours need money, technology and a crew with expertise – which everyone seems optimistic Fournier has finally assembled. This year, the balloon’s manufacturer handpicked balloon pilots from around the US to handle the launch. “Hell, yeah, we’re going to get ’er done,” drawls Jim Roybal, a lanky pilot from Fort Worth, Texas. “We came up here to get this guy to where he wants to go, and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
A fourth crucial requirement, Ryan says, is strong leadership. But at the operation’s unofficial headquarters, a small motor lodge a few miles from the air field, Fournier’s team has segregated by native language. The French gather in motel rooms and the small, sunny lobby. The American pilots and a group of Canadian ham radio enthusiasts, charged with tracking the balloon and capsule, stake out a picnic table and grill in the corner of the parking lot.
At 1:30 am on the day of the launch, the balloon pilots begin to stir. Mark Conner, the team meteorologist and a staff scientist at an environmental consulting firm in Omaha, leans against the motel’s peachcoloured siding, coffee mug in hand. He explains that the ideal launch conditions are very light winds in the lowest layers of the atmosphere, which typically require getting the balloon off the ground at dawn. The current wind speed is 10 km/h – right at the upper limit. “All week long, no day would have worked,” says Phil Bryant, a structural engineer who owns a balloon repair station in Houston. “This morning, it’s just meant to be. It’ll calm down.”
The team drives to the airfield, and soon headlights pierce the darkness as a forklift lumbers down the runway, ferrying the large plywood crate with the roughly 225 000-cubic-metre balloon packed neatly inside. In the distance, Fournier’s capsule sits illuminated in a cone of light. At 4 am, the sky lightens to a deep purple, then a smoky blue. The Canadian flag whipping over the main terminal slows to a lazy wave and finally hangs limp from its pole. By 5:30, the small crowd of local observers peering through binoculars along a chain-link fence can see the balloon stretched out for 120 metres along the runway. Fournier, in a bright yellow spacesuit, sits prebreathing pure oxygen in the open door of the capsule.
No one moves to fill the balloon for another two hours. Word ripples out that a problem with Fournier’s suit was responsible for the delay. Finally, the helium truck rumbles to life, and the balloon begins to float up off the runway, slim and transparent like a man-o’-war.
Then, the steady hum of the truck stops, and the press agent’s cellphone rings. “Oh, shi-i-it,” she says into it. “Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit.” Fournier’s reserve parachute popped open in the capsule during a pressurisation test, she says. The attempt has to be terminated for the day. Only, rescheduling the launch is not that simple. Stratospheric balloons are made of a sheer, low-density polyethylene plastic as thin as a dry-cleaning bag. They’re one-time use. The pilots vent the gas and carefully spool the balloon back into its crate, but it may have stretched.
Back at the lodge, the balloon’s manufacturer, Mark Caviezel, joins the North American support team at the picnic table. He leans back in his chair, stirring a glass of Jack Daniel’s with his finger. “Mr Fournier wants to fly on Tuesday,” he announces. “Let me say that again: Mr Fournier wants to fly on Tuesday.” The team waits expectantly; a few people shake their heads. “He’s got issues with his balloon. He’s got issues with his spacesuit. He’s got issues with his chute,” Caviezel says. He’s asked how much of the balloon actually filled with helium. About 20 metres, he replies. “One option we didn’t discuss is to cut and reterminate the balloon,” he continues. You’d probably lose about 30 000 cubic metres. “You can still get record-breaking altitude. You can still have supersonic free-fall.” Would Caviezel be willing to do that? “Among the core crew,” he says, “the sentiment is not only no, but hell no. My professional meteorologist is telling me I have five days of nonflyable weather and (the French) tell me Tuesday is looking good.” Conner confirms: “I don’t think Tuesday’s looking any better than tomorrow, and tomorrow’s shit.”
“Can you put that in laymen’s terms?” someone asks.
They discuss it further: the weather, their protocol as pilots, their concerns about the rest of the team’s preparation. They note that they have to get back to their jobs – some have taken vacation days to volunteer. Finally, they talk about how much they like Fournier.
“I don’t want to send the man up just to die,” Roybal says.
“I agree,” Caviezel says. “He’s a nice guy.”
The next morning, the pilots fly home, and the Canadian hams drive back to Edmonton. Fournier walks from his room to the lobby, where his countrymen are once again congregating. The day before, as a distant figure in a yellow spacesuit being ushered off the tarmac, he looked small – and he still does. But Fournier’s demeanour is chipper, as though everything is going according to plan. When asked whether he’ll try again, he smiles broadly and says, in French, “Oh, yes, we’ll wait five days for the weather!” His equipment disappears from the hangar a few days later, but he’ll be back, he tells the people of North Battleford. Hold the hangar for August.
The capsule built for Felix Baumgartner at Sage Cheshire Aerospace in Lancaster, California, looks not so much like the relic of an early space programme as a shiny scale model of one manufactured for a museum. Its sleek, silvery shell is bell-shaped, like the Gemini. A centimetre-thick round acrylic door, about 1,2 metres in diameter, swivels cleanly to one side on internal rails.
Beneath the glass fibre shell, it’s outfitted like a spacecraft, for a very obvious reason: when you get above 36 000 metres, you’re at around 0,2 per cent atmosphere, says Art Thompson, who’s also Sage Cheshire’s co-founder. There’s very little difference between being at 36 000 metres and being on the Moon. A pressure sphere moulded from glass fibre and epoxy and surrounded by a load-bearing cage of chrome-moly steel contains the craft’s instrumentation, including manual controls for a redundant life-support system.
Whereas Kittinger ascended in an open gondola, Baumgartner’s capsule will be pressurised to half a bar so that he can ride safely up with his suit uninflated (and back down, in the event that the suit becomes compromised). But once Baumgartner opens the door, the inside of the craft will be exposed to the stratosphere – as will all the systems it holds.
“One of the unique things about this aircraft is that it goes up under a balloon and comes down under a parachute, and it goes up under pressure and comes back down under a vacuum condition,” says Michael McDowell, the capsule’s electrical and test engineer. “So this is very unlike any standard aircraft in that we’re going to see cold, we’re going to see vacuum, and then at the end of our trip, we don’t land on wheels.”
Also unlike with a standard aircraft, more than half of the 100 switches on the instrument panels control camera systems: on the capsule alone, nine highdefinition, three digital still and three ultra-high-res video cameras will film the attempt for the benefit of ground control and to provide live footage for a television and Web audience. A separate lithium-ion battery system powers the camera equipment so as not to interfere with critical functions of the capsule; communications are transmitted through independent radio-telemetry systems as well.
The capsule with its payload – both human and electronic – weighs about 1 100 kg; Fournier’s is about 500; Kittinger’s gondola was 417. The mission is weight-critical in that any extra kilogram of payload decreases the altitude that it can reach under the balloon, says Bill Dodson, the capsule’s chief engineer. To rise to the target of 120 000 feet (36 600 metres), Baumgartner’s balloon will have to be 850 000 cubic metres in capacity – more than three times the size of Fournier’s and 10 times Kittinger’s. It will climb at about 300 metres per minute until it reaches altitude, where it will swell to approximately 120 metres in diameter as Baumgartner prepares to step out.
The toes of Baumgartner’s thick white boots creep to the edge of the narrow step. He leans out ever so slightly, his gloved hands grasping the grey handrails at each side. His dark faceplate glints briefly in the sun. Then, a bunny hop. Both feet leave the platform at the same time, knees gently bent, and he hurtles toward the Earth. Suddenly, he jerks back upward, whipping violently around with a loud thwap as his bungee cord slaps his helmet, then briefly wraps around a leg of his pressure suit. He twists in the air and bounces again and again until the line hangs still, and a yellow Champion crane slowly lowers him to the ground.
He lifts his faceplate and sinks into a folding chair as his team crowds around him. “It looked like you leaned forward,” Dan Murray says. “That’s not the way you want to go.” Baumgartner nods, his face intense with concentration.
He is now nearly three years into the project’s development and training and less than six months from the final jump. Everyone is aware of Fournier’s attempt the week before. “You can never rush a scientific test programme to meet somebody else’s jump schedule,” Thompson says. “If you do, you’re making a major mistake. If Fournier jumps, Fournier jumps. If we get there first, we get there first. But we need to be sensible.”
And so, at a fairground a few kilometres from Sage Cheshire, Baumgartner is practising taking that allimportant first step. “I want to have all the confidence in the world,” he says, “because at the end of the day we still have one big unknown, and that’s what happens to the human body when you reach the speed of sound.” If he begins to tumble at 36 000 metres, he can go into a deadly uncontrolled spin. At that altitude, there’s not enough air density for him to correct himself or for a drogue chute to be effective.
But after the first 18 to 20 seconds, a drogue chute can help. Luke Aikins, Baumgartner’s aerial strategist, has designed a drogue unlike any other: it’s independent of the main and reserve chutes and will deploy automatically if he experiences 3,5 g’s for 6 seconds – about 96 revolutions per minute. The plan, though, is not to use a drogue at all. The team wants to prove that a person could do a high-altitude re-entry, passing from subsonic through transonic to supersonic flight and back again, while controlling his body positioning.
In order to do that, Baumgartner needs a pressure suit with some flexibility. His is a hybrid of those worn by U-2 pilots and astronauts, with an important distinction: it is designed to inflate to the standing position and has articulated joints in the hips and shoulders. Still, it is a little like being inside a football. “By the time I step off it’s already been five hours in that suit,” Baumgartner says. “You’re completely worn out in that moment. But this is the moment when everything starts. It’s not over yet. You need to get back to Earth, safely.”
Ideally, he will rotate into a delta position as he’s falling, head slightly down and arms and legs outstretched behind him like a diving osprey. At around 30 000 metres, he’ll reach Mach 1. “Nobody’s ever accelerated through the sound barrier and decelerated back through it, and monitoring him during that is going to give us a lot of information,” says Jon Clark, the project’s medical director and the space medicine adviser to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. “Can it be done?” Baumgartner stands in the door of the basket as the crane slowly lifts him back into the air. From 60 metres below, his white suit is just a smudge against the faded red paint of the steel lattice. The cord hangs beneath him in a long graceful loop, swaying in the wind.
In the corner of the parking lot, Joe Kittinger and Einar Enevoldson, the team’s high-altitude research consultant, sit in folding chairs, gazing up at him under the brims of their hats. Enevoldson has flown more than 300 kinds of aircraft and set eight world records, five of which still stand. The men, a little rounder and thinner, respectively, now, and freckled with age spots, wear the signs of their long distinguished careers – but they’re still every bit test pilots. “Joe and I, our goal wasn’t to set records – we were just doing our daily jobs,” Enevoldson says. “You have to go about this in a businesslike way.”
Asked if he’d given his first step this much consideration, Kittinger promptly replies: “I gave it a year and a half of thought. I did it in my mind 1 000 times, and in a pressure chamber 30 times. I didn’t want to go headfirst, so I thought I’d just do a short hop, and it worked out perfect. That’s what Felix will do, too.”
Baumgartner moves forward to the edge of the basket. He stands, a bit straighter now, pauses, and then gives a short hop. He falls in slow-motion, a tiny white figure, like a toy parachutist dropping from the sky. “Beautiful,” Enevoldson says. “I think he was too much feet forward,” Kittinger replies. “He’s got to get rotated around.” Baumgartner bounces a few times, cleanly, and then is lowered to the ground. He wants to go back up. In a few months, he’ll have one shot at that first step, one chance to break the record. But today, he can try it again and again.
1. Camera systems
Three pressurised housings on aluminium arms will contain a total of three HD, three ultra-high-resolution video and two digital still cameras. Four more cameras record outside and three inside. “We basically built a flying television studio,” says Jay Nemeth of FlightLine Films.
2. Outer fairing
The Gemini shape of the capsule is “really a very elegant way of putting a lot of insulation around a lot of the systems”, says chief engineer Bill Dodson. R-24 equivalent foam, covered by a glass fibre shell and fireproof paint, helps guard against temperatures as low as minus 73 degrees
3. Liquid oxygen
Redundant liquid-oxygen tanks with independent lines provide 10 hours of O2 for the 3-hour flight, plus they pressurise Baumgartner’s suit at altitude. N2 flowing from an oversize liquid-nitrogen tank will keep the cabin’s oxygen level to below 30 per cent, minimising fire risk.
4. Pressure sphere
A pressure sphere, moulded from glass fibre and epoxy, sits in a chrome-moly steel load frame “like an egg in a bubble-wrap container”, says project director Art Thompson. It will be pressurised to half a bar – equal to 4 800 metres – but is designed to withstand six times that. “It’s definitely overbuilt.”
36 600 m
Felix Baumgartner exits capsule and executes a small hop from the threshold, falling feet down.
30 000 m/35-37 sec
Accelerating at 9,8 metres per second squared, he reaches 1 110 km/h, Mach 1, breaking the sound barrier. Baumgartner plans to rotate into delta position, arms and legs outstretched behind him, increasing his speed to as high as 1 190 km/h.
20 000 m/1 min 35 sec
Falling into denser air, Baumgartner slows to subsonic speeds and passes through the coldest part of the atmosphere, from minus 55 to minus 73
10 000 m/2 min 45 sec
His pressure suit completely deflates, and Baumgartner may choose to assume standard skydiving position.
1 500 m/5 min 35 sec
Baumgartner deploys 25-squaremetre main parachute and descends for roughly 10 more minutes.
1. Conformal helmet
Like those worn by Air Force U-2 pilots, Baumgartner’s helmet is conformal: it moves as the wearer’s head moves, unlike the larger, nonconformal helmets of Nasa astronauts.
2. Articulated joints
“The arms articulate around the shoulders so he can fall in one of two positions,” says lifesupport engineer Mike Todd. And whereas Nasa and Air Force suits inflate to a sitting position, the hips of Baumgartner’s suit have been straightened.
3. Rearview mirrors
A mirror on the back of each glove allows Baumgartner to see what his parachute is doing above him during the jump.
4. Chest pack
A chest pack contains telemetry that will record and transmit data to crew on the ground. An inertial measurement unit will report altitude and spin, and a GPS unit will track Baumgartner’s position. A123 lithium-ion batteries supply localised power.
5. Camera pockets
Two HD video cameras mounted on the thighs, one aimed up and the other down, will film the skydive. “That was a huge challenge for us,” says Dan McCarter of the David Clark Company. “We didn’t want to do anything that would affect the form, fit or function of the suit.”
Click here to see Joe Kittinger leaping from the stratosphere back in ‘60, setting the record of 31 333 m that has remained untouched for 50 years.