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 3 of 5)
According to Ryan, the Project Excelsior team made it up as they went along. At one point an engineer tied Kittinger’s helmet on with nylon clasps to keep it from popping off under low pressure at altitude. To monitor his heartbeat, his physicians taped an analog microphone to his chest.
Baumgartner has it a little better. “Basically we want to instrument Felix just like he was an airplane,” says Jon Clark, a former NASA space shuttle crew surgeon and Stratos’ medical director. Baumgartner will be wearing a physiological monitoring system used by the U.S. military and adapted for the Stratos project. The instrument pack, worn on the jumper’s chest, will monitor his heart and respiratory rates and collect echocardiogram data. It also has an accelerometer, which will monitor whether Baumgartner’s body is spinning and if so, how fast. If he’s experiencing more than 3.5 Gs of rotational force, his stabilizing drogue chute will deploy automatically.
“We are doing stuff that’s been done before, if only by a few people,” says Clark. “But what we’re doing is capturing more information.”
Baumgartner’s team says that its primary aim is to advance the science of survival at extreme altitude, not just to break records or publicize Red Bull. One contribution they expect to be useful to future pilots and astronauts is a new field treatment protocol for vacuum exposure. Called high-frequency percussive ventilation (HFV), the technique would help a victim of vacuum exposure breathe without further damage to the lungs. While the treatment is common practice for burn victims, no one has ever thought to use it on victims of sudden decompression.
The threat of exposure to near-zero atmospheric pressure levels is one of Clark’s biggest worries. If Baumgartner’s suit fails, the fluids in his body will start to boil and bubble in a process called ebullism. The resulting tissue damage could kill him if not treated immediately, so Clark is determined to have an HFV machine on the ground in case something goes wrong.
There are other concerns. At some point during his descent, Baumgartner will experience temperatures as low as –148 degrees Fahrenheit, factoring in the wind chill. For the 71,500-foot test jump, he opted not to have electric warmers installed in his gloves and boots because they decreased mobility. Afterward, he reported that his hands had been so cold he could hardly move them. “He was surprised, but we weren’t,” says Kittinger, a bit smugly. He had suspected the wind chill would make Baumgartner feel colder than he had in pressure chamber tests. “I bet he won’t do it again.”
The greatest danger to Baumgartner is a flat spin, but he hopes not to have to use the drogue chute so he can break Andreev’s record. He proved on the test jump that he can use skills he has developed over years of skydiving—slightly changing the position of his limbs to control his attitude—to prevent spinning. Stratos engineers have made Baumgartner’s suit as flexible as possible to improve his ability to make those fine adjustments.
Stratos has arranged for the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world body governing aeronautics records, to be watching when Baumgartner makes his attempt from 120,000 feet. Red Bull wants to make sure the jump counts. If he’s successful, Baumgartner won’t just set the record for highest skydive. He’ll also try to set records for longest freefall and highest manned balloon flight, and may become the first person to break the sound barrier without the aid of a vehicle.