By Joshua Ostrer
On October 14, Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos team completed the highest ever successful skydive, falling from 128,100 feet above earth down onto the New Mexico desert.
Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old Austrian daredevil, completed the jump after two test jumps earlier this year. Baumgartner’s first jump was on March 15, from a height of 71,581 feet, and his second jump was on July 25, from a height of 96,640 feet.
Baumgartner’s final jump, from over 24 miles high, came only months later in Roswell, New Mexico.
The Austrian daredevil broke a few records during his successful 26 mile-high skydive: first person to break the speed of sound in freefall (breaching a speed of 833.9 miles per hour), highest freefall jump (128,100 feet) and highest manned balloon flight (128,100 feet).
As a point of reference, the average civilian skydive ranges from 3,000 to 13,000 feet.
The only record Baumgartner didn’t secure was longest freefall. Baumgartner was in freefall for four minutes and 22 seconds of his nine minute, nine second jump, 12 seconds short of the record set by Colonel Joe Kittinger.
Col. Joe Kittinger was also involved in the Red Bull Stratos mission. He was the only one communicating with Baumgartner from balloon-liftoff until his safe landing.
Although Baumgartner successfully completed the jump, there were a few difficulties over the course of the mission.
“It was an incredible up and down today, just like it’s been with the whole project. First we got off with a beautiful launch and then we had a bit of drama with a power supply issue to my visor (which had to be heated for him to see),” said Baumgartner in a post-jump press conference.
For viewers who watched the skydive, which was shown on television and streaming online, there was one moment of nervousness.
For a few seconds, Baumgartner entered an uncontrolled spin, where the daredevil spun wildly, with his body experiencing over 20 times the force of gravity spinning him rapidly during his freefall.
The live stream, which had a 20-second delay in case of disaster, cut away from Baumgartner during his spin, cutting to the on-land control room.
“The exit was perfect but then I started spinning slowly. I thought I’d just spin a few times and that would be that, but then I started to speed up. It was really brutal at times. I thought for a few seconds that I’d lose consciousness. I didn’t feel a sonic boom because I was so busy just trying to stabilize myself…It was really a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” said Baumgartner in his post-jump press conference.
But after this is all said and done, why does Baumgartner’s feat actually matter?
Red Bull, the Austrian energy drink company, sponsored the flight, but cooperated alongside NASA analysts to provide data for future missions involving high speed individual landings.
The data collected could be helpful in developing systems that would permit astronauts to bail out of defective shuttles should the need arise.
The jump also employed the use of a number of technological advancements.
Baumgartner’s suit was fully pressurized, able to provide protection from temperatures ranging from 100 degrees fahrenheit to negative 90 degrees fahrenheit.
All of the technology used during Baumgartner’s 24 mile drop had to be capable of withstanding extreme conditions. The temperature at 128,000 feet can drop as low as -70F degrees, and has less than 10 percent of the atmospheric pressure humans are used to on the earth’s surface.
Additionally, the launch team was forced to delay the mission due to winds. Winds of even two miles per hour could pose the risk of the helium balloon tearing.
The suit had to be modified to provide never-before-needed movement capability, while still maintaining perfect form. Baumgartner needed the suit to assist him in keeping as rigid as possible during his descent to prevent excessive spinning or a loss of consciousness.
For the balloon, Red Bull Stratos used what amounts to a 40-acre dry cleaner bag, weighing 3,708 pounds. The balloon was filled with helium and stretched to a height of 55 stories during Baumgartner’s ascent to the stratosphere.
The mission also used a specially designed capsule, weighing 2900 pounds split into four components: a pressure sphere, cage, shell and base and crush pads.Each element was designed to provide the safest possible journey for Baumgartner, which it did.
However, following Baumgartner’s second test jump, the capsule had to be repaired after it was damaged in a hard landing.
The Red Bull Stratos mission also presents a shift in the way things are done.
With NASA’s operating budget a fraction of what it used to be, new data and research for space safety and exploration will rely on private companies’ interest in the field.
However, with companies like Red Bull and SpaceX, a company building and launching space transports, the future of private space advancement might have some promise.