Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner pulled off the ultimate daredevil stunt about three years ago.
With the help of the Red Bull Stratos project, a helium balloon lifted a 1,450-kilogram capsule carrying Baumgartner to almost 40,000 metres above Earth. This region is known as “near space”.
At that point, Baumgartner climbed out of the capsule and plunged earthward, reaching a peak speed of 1,367 kilometres per hour.
Just 1,700 metres above the ground, he opened his parachute, and he landed safely in New Mexico. It was the highest-altitude jump in history, taking him more than nine minutes to make it back to Earth.
On January 22, at Vancouver’s Science World, three people who worked on the Red Bull Stratos project shared some memories. They were at the science centre to celebrate the launch of an exhibit about the historic jump, which continues until April 26.
One of those present, retired U.S. air force colonel Joe Kittinger, set the previous record for a high-altitude jump by plunging more than 31,000 metres to the ground in 1960. Kittinger’s job on the Red Bull Stratos mission was to be the primary ground person communicating with Baumgartner to give him an idea of what to expect.
“When I saw Felix jump, I knew exactly what he was feeling,” Kittinger told reporters.
He then quipped that Baumgartner’s heart rate rose to 140 beats per minute after he leaped out of the capsule, whereas his was racing at about 200. The 84-year-old veteran still holds the world record for longest time in a free fall, at 4:36. Baumgartner’s free fall extended 4:22.
Mike Todd, the life-support engineer on the Stratos project, pointed out that normal air is only about 20 percent oxygen and 79 percent nitrogen. The problem that high-altitude jumpers face is that once they rise to about 30,000 metres, nitrogen migrates to the heart and lungs, posing a potentially deadly threat.
Todd explained that to prevent this, Baumgartner “prebreathed” pure oxygen for six hours before his jump, bringing the percentage of nitrogen in his bloodstream down to three percent by the time he started ascending in the capsule.
Todd added that the capsule was pressurized to eight pounds per square inch (PSI) and the suit was pressurized to 3.5 PSI. (Sea-level atmospheric pressure is 14.7 PSI.) This was done to reduce the risk of decompression sickness.
Following a panel discussion in the lobby of Science World, Red Bull Stratos technical director Art Thompson spoke to the Straight about the risks associated with Baumgartner’s jump.
“When he was about 100,000 feet [30,480 metres] in the air, his balloon and capsule were going about 128 miles in one direction,” he recalled. “So our ground crew that was chasing the balloon, they couldn’t even keep up with him. Fortunately…it started coming back in the other direction.”
Although the Austrian had emergency parachutes that could open at higher altitudes, Thompson also acknowledged there was a risk that the jet stream could shear off the top of the balloon. It was 182 metres tall with a 46-metre parachute.
“So our flight train was 750 feet [228 metres] tall…we were almost twice as large as the rocket that took Apollo to the moon,” Thompson said.
It’s not the highest altitude ever reached by a helium balloon. Thompson said a Japanese helium balloon once reached almost 49,000 metres above the ground, but it was carrying a payload about the size of a small suitcase.
“It’s feasible that you could take a capsule and a person a little bit higher [than Baumgartner], but you’re right at about the boundaries,” he stated.
The project originated in 2005 when Thompson wrote an 87-page proposal to Red Bull. At the time, he estimated that it would cost $10.5 million.
The company agreed to proceed in 2007, and by the end of it all, Red Bull concluded that the whole operation cost $27 million, according to Thompson.
Baumgartner’s jump has been viewed by three billion people worldwide, according to Red Bull. The exhibit at Science World features his suit and a capsule from an earlier manned flight, in which he jumped from about 30,000 metres above the Earth, with a free-fall speed of 862 kilometres per hour.
The suit worn by Baumgartner and his capsule for the final jump are in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
“That’s pretty significant that Red Bull has their logo, their brand, and their message of being involved in flight safety and flight testing on permanent display—forever,” Thompson said.