The race is on to be the next human meteor.
- By Michael Klesius
- AirSpaceMag.com, June 16, 2008
A massive gossamer thing, the balloon looked like some super-giant squid, or a long, drooping jellyfish. It reached more than 600 feet into the sky above Canada’s Saskatchewan province on the morning of May 27, 2008. Then, shortly after 5:00 a.m., without warning, it disconnected, leaving French adventurer Michel Fournier grounded, blinking in his pressure suit and gondola as the runaway balloon carried off his dream of finally making Le Grand Saut, The Big Jump.
The $200,000, Russian-made balloon was later recovered about 25 miles away, but Fournier is still searching for the reason why, after three tries, he hasn’t yet fulfilled his ambition to make the world’s highest skydive, from an altitude of 25 miles. His latest guess is that static electricity set off a charge that severed the cable connecting the gondola to the balloon.
“It was like having a hammer [brought down] over my head,” said the 64-year-old French native and former paratrooper, recounting the moment he realized he had failed again.
His own country won’t allow the risky jump over its territory, so he has come to the vast expanse of central Canada.
After last month’s failure he was optimistic, even defiant, when asked whether he intended to hang it up. “I’m not going to get myself all upset about what’s written in my blood on my website. I’m not about to give up. In life you have to believe in what you do.” His next attempt will come in August at the same location.
“Talk about heart-breaking,” says Cheryl Stearns, an American woman who has long planned her own high-altitude jump. “I saw that and I said, ‘I’d hate to be in his shoes.’” In an ironic twist, says Stearns, Fournier could have died if the balloon had detached during ascent before he reached a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet because he would not have been high enough to bail out in time and open his chute. “That’s the critical part, not being able to bail out below two grand [two thousand feet]. I don’t want anything to happen out there like that, because anything that happens negative for him will reflect on the rest of us.”
Her company, StratoQuest, of Charlotte, North Carolina, hasn’t been able to secure the $5 million of funding she needs to make a bid for the record.
Fournier, on the other hand, has devoted the last two decades and 12.7 million euros, about $20 million, to the pursuit of the record fall. But he has yet to take a balloon up into the frigid stratosphere to 130,000 feet—his target altitude.
The idea of high altitude jumping isn’t new. The record has stood for almost half a century, set on August 16, 1960, by U.S. Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger, who leapt from 102,800 feet wearing a pressure suit. Stepping out of his gondola high over New Mexico, Kittinger saw the black of space above and the curvature of Earth below, and fell through air so thin that he accelerated to 614 miles an hour before thicker layers of air slowed his fall.
Now enter Steve Truglia, a 45-year-old former British Special Forces soldier with his own adrenaline issues. Truglia is an accomplished stuntman and stunt coordinator who’s worked on two James Bond movies and the high-energy war flick Saving Private Ryan. He’s also been decorated with the U.S. Marine Corps’ “Gold Parachute Wings” while on exchange duty at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. About nine months ago, Truglia decided it was time to try a high altitude jump. He thinks his balloon, which is smaller than Fournier’s, can make it to 120,000 feet, still above 99.9 percent of the atmosphere, where the temperature hovers at -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Oklahoma.
“It’s the last and greatest stunt challenge on Earth,” says Truglia. “I’m a professional risk assessor, and I’ve come to a level in my professional life where I’m convinced that I can do this.”
He and his team have estimated that he’ll accelerate to a speed of 745 miles an hour and break the sound barrier somewhere around 90,000 feet.
Is there anything that scares him about the jump?
“All of it, actually,” he admits. “The whole thing is scary.” This coming from a guy who has parachuted more than a thousand times and endured a full body burn for two minutes and four seconds. He’s also the British record holder for free diving underwater, having descended 252 feet on a single breath. Truglia can hold his breath underwater for six minutes and 10 seconds.
None of that will mean much if his pressure suit doesn’t work. It’s a Russian model, and that’s about all he’ll say, except that “it’s made by one of the world’s best space suit designers.
“I’m entirely reliant on the suit,” he says. “Above 64,000 feet, if something goes wrong and it depressurizes, I die within about ten seconds.” At that altitude, the weak atmospheric pressure causes gases in the blood to boil.
Is there something useful that might come from his thrill seeking, something applicable to space travel?
“Definitely,” says Truglia. “At some stage, the FAA is going to take a look at space tourism and make these new companies come up with a system to ensure that passengers survive in the event of a depressurization inside the spacecraft. I’m already talking to commercial space tourism companies about making suits for their future clients.”
But those theoretical space tourists would remain inside the rocket plane until it reached a lower altitude. As for whether his jump has direct applications for high-altitude bailout scenarios, Truglia says that work was done by Kittinger decades ago.
“There nothing more to be learned there,” he says. Certainly, any astronaut moving at orbital velocity would burn up on entry into the atmosphere.
“No way you could do much beyond Mach 2,” agrees Stearns. “The speed is just too much.”
Even NASA never came up with a better system for the space shuttle than the one developed after the Challenger disaster that involves a telescoping escape pole for astronauts to slide down via an open hatch on the left side of the orbiter. That still wouldn’t have saved the Challenger crew; the system is designed to work only after the solid rocket boosters finish their burn and fall away, and the orbiter has slowed to subsonic speed and descended to an altitude of 25,000 feet—not a reassuring window of opportunity.
“For astronauts going to orbit, or coming back,” says Stearns, “if something goes really wrong, you just gotta say, ‘It wasn’t my day.’”
Such thoughts haven’t dampened the enthusiasm of any of the contenders vying to make the world’s highest jump.
“I believe that unless you’re crazy,” says Truglia, “and I’m not crazy, you should live your dreams and go for things you want to do. There are all sorts of exciting challenges out there for all of us. The worst thing I can imagine is to get old and say, ‘I wish I’d done that.’”