The 120,000-Foot Leap
Can space-diver Felix Baumgartner break the sound barrier without breaking his neck?
- By Mark Betancourt
- Air & Space magazine, July 2012
(Page 2 of 5)
At the same time, jet aircraft like the new U-2 spyplane were reaching altitudes of up to 70,000 feet, and the Air Force wanted to know whether pilots could survive a bailout in a near-vacuum. To find out, Kittinger came up with Project Excelsior—a fancy-sounding name for riding in a tiny basket to the edge of space, wearing only the standard partial-pressure suit given to all high-altitude pilots, and jumping out.
Unlike Baumgartner, Kittinger wasn’t an accomplished skydiver—the big jump was only his 33rd. He wanted to prove that any high-altitude pilot could survive a bailout using only standard-issue equipment, plus one important addition: Kittinger’s team designed an automatic, multi-stage parachute system that included a special drogue—a small stabilizing chute—to protect him from a deadly flat spin, one of the many dangers of a long freefall.
Aerodynamic forces can set a falling body spinning at up to 240 rotations per minute. That’s the equivalent of 37 Gs, enough to knock you unconscious almost instantly. A flat spin can be fatal, and once it gets going, it’s impossible to correct with body posture alone—like trying to lift a ton of bricks while passing out. The drogue system developed for Excelsior is now used in all aircraft ejection seats.
Kittinger’s record has gone mostly unchallenged for half a century. In 1962, Soviet Army parachutists Eugene Andreev and Peter Dolgov jumped from beneath a balloon after floating well into the stratosphere. Dolgov’s pressure suit was breached, exposing him to the near-vacuum outside, and by the time his automatic parachute deposited him on the ground, he was dead. Andreev, though, still holds the record for longest freefall without the assistance of a drogue chute: 80,380 feet.
The only other serious challenger was a truck driver from New Jersey. Nick Piantanida, a daredevil who dabbled in exotic animal dealing, decided after his very first skydive in 1963 that he would try to break Kittinger’s record. With very little parachuting experience and even less technical knowledge, he set about raising money and finding experts who could show him the way.
Piantanida was able to accomplish an astonishing amount, given that he started with no ties to the U.S. military or NASA. While the record is unofficial, there is no doubt he went higher than any other human has in a balloon—123,500 feet. Preparing to jump on his second attempt at the record, Piantanida discovered that the coupling connecting his suit to the oxygen supply in his gondola was frozen solid and he couldn’t disconnect it. He was stuck, and his team had no choice but to cut the gondola free and return him to the ground under its parachute.
Baumgartner is unlikely to be undone by such simple mishaps. Kittinger says comparing his own open-air gondola (and Piantanida’s, which was similar) to Baumgartner’s pressurized capsule is like comparing a Model T Ford to a Ferrari. But it’s not just the equipment that sets Baumgartner apart from other aspiring high-divers. His main asset is his team.
“They’re taking advantage of this historical expertise,” says Craig Ryan, a historian of manned balloon flights and author of books about both Kittinger and Piantanida. “When Kittinger did it,” he says, “there wasn’t any historical expertise.”