The 120,000-Foot Leap

Can space-diver Felix Baumgartner break the sound barrier without breaking his neck?

Up above 96 percent of the atmosphere, Felix Baumgartner prepares for a 13.5-mile test jump. This summer he’ll leap from nearly twice as high. (Jay Nemeth/Global-Newsroom)
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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.”

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.


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