On August 16, 1960 US Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger ascended to the edge of space, 102,800 feet, and then jumped.
During his descent he set four world records and provided the US with a lot of information on high altitude bailouts (for later use with military aircraft). His fall didn’t quite go as planned, there was a small leak in his right glove. The difference in pressure caused his hand to swell up to twice it’s normal size. He hid that fact from the ground crew, fearing the launch would be cancelled.
National funding for aerospace is under scrutiny every year with politicians trying to figure out what to cut and what to keep. I can’t tell you where I first heard it, but I’ve heard the saying ‘corporations will own space’ several times in the last few years. Proving that trend true is eccentric billionaire Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, a part of his Virgin conglomerate that is trying to make space tourism a reality. Red Bull has also decided to get into the game with their Red Bull Stratos program.
Red Bull is heavily marketed to the extreme sports crowd. What better way for them to combine extreme with their slogan ‘Red Bull gives you wings’ than a high altitude jump aimed at breaking the sound barrier? Red Bull got together with experts in the field including the now retired Colonel Kittinger to make an even higher jump from space. For the jump they found Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian with an already long resume when it comes to altitude. On October 14, 2012 Felix successfully jumped from 128,100 feet back to earth.
To make the jump possible the Red Bull Stratos team had to make almost everything from scratch. The vehicle to bring Felix to the edge of space consisted of a capsule and balloon. The balloon is essentially a 40 acres large dryer cleaner bag specially fabricated for this jump. The bag was only partially filled when on the ground because the Helium gas contained within will expand as the capsule moves higher up in the atmosphere. The capsule is made of several different materials to withstand temperatures of less than -70 degrees Fahrenheit. The interior of the capsule remained pressurized up to 120,000 feet. For the remainder of the ascent the capsule slowly depressurized while his suit pressurized to maintain a constant pressure for Felix. Inside the capsule are several displays, instrument panels, and cameras with telemetry that is shared with both Felix and the ground crew.
The suit designed for Felix was modeled after other high altitude suits worn by pilots with a few modifications. The materials are made to withstand temperatures of over 100 degrees fahrenheit to less than -90 degrees fahrenheit. During the fall back to earth changes in pressure are going to drastic. To combat the pressure changes the suits computer will maintain a constant pressure. The helmet is made of composite materials that are strong yet light. It also has oxygen regulators that provide 100% oxygen to Felix during the fall. His visor contains a heating element to keep it from fogging or icing up while in free fall. This fall didn’t go quite as planned either. The heating element for his visor didn’t work correctly. This wasn’t quite as large a problem as Joe faced in 1960 since the visor heated up as he fell to earth.
There are three parachutes attached to the suit; one drogue chute, the main chute, and a reserve chute. A drogue chute helps prevent a skydiver from spinning uncontrollably while in free fall. As part of the quest to go faster than the sound barrier Felix didn’t want to use one unless necessary. The solution was to put a sensor on his suit that can determine the amount of G forces Felix is experiencing. If he experiences 3.5G for more than 6 consecutive seconds the drogue chute will automatically deploy to stabilize him. The main chute is deployed manually. The reserve chute can be deployed manually but it can also be deployed automatically if he’s falling more than 115 feet per second at or below an altitude of 2,000 feet. Thankfully the only chute Felix needed was his main chute.
You can find out more about this record breaking feat, including videos of the jump, by visiting redbullstratos.com