Friday’s world-record high-altitude skydive by computer scientist Alan Eustace pioneered a new space suit and life support system and the data collected from the jump may inform the design of a six-person capsule now in the works.
Eustace, a Google senior executive, established the new record by exiting a balloon at 135, 890 feet over Roswell, New Mexico, surpassing the previous record set just two years ago by Austrian Felix Baumgartner in a much-promoted jump sponsored by Redbull on October 14, 2012. Baumgartner exited his pressurized capsule at 128,000 feet and established both highest exit and longest freefall records, according to James Hayhurst, of the United States Parachute Association, who was on site to verify both the Baumgartner and Eustace records. AVweb spoke to Hayhurst at length the day after the jump. (Look for a long-form podcast later today.)
He said he first learned of Eustace’s project in early 2012, as Redbull was approaching its launch date and at one point, it appeared as though Eustace would catch up to Baumgartner’s effort. After a discussion with Eustace, Hayhurst said, “We finished up and we both agreed wouldn’t it be wonderful if Felix Baumgartner was to set the world record and somehow an American would win it back. Because Felix was using the resources of Redbull, but it was all American [technology]. It was an all-American operation with an Austrian doing the jumping.”
And that’s exactly what happened on Friday. Hayhurst said Eustace’s record jump occurred on the third attempt, with two previous test jumps to 57,000 feet and 105,000 feet within just the previous two weeks. The project has been underway for several years and while it wasn’t strictly top secret, it also wasn’t promoted.
“The whole effort was not in any sort of sneaky way at all, but they just wanted to go about developing the space suit, the environmental pack, the new method of deploying the pilot chute which keeps the drogue chute safely away from the jumper. All of this was under the umbrella of the Paragon Space Development Corp, which was an effort to get a foothold in space,” Hayhurst said. The pilot chute device, called Sabre, reduces the risk of pilot chute entanglement, which nearly killed Joe Kittinger during one of his Project Excelsior jumps in 1960.
Paragon’s testing was done in the open at Roswell. “I wouldn’t call it a cover story, but all that time, they were doing testing dozens of iron dummy tests and getting familiar with high-altitude balloons…all that was done in plain sight, but people just assumed Paragon Space Development was just doing a bunch of testing. Most people wouldn’t have cared, but they didn’t realize it was driving towards Alan’s manned jump,” Hayhurst said.
In serendipitous timing, Eustace had contacted Paragon just as it was involved in development of a project called World View. It envisions a six-person capsule flown to about 130,000 feet, then descended under an airfoil of some kind to a safe landing. Paragon is developing life support systems for this project and leveraged this into the suit he used.
Eustace made his flight not in a capsule, but suspended beneath the balloon in his suit, which was released at exit altitude by an explosive squib. According to photos of the jump, Eustace was in a belly-to-earth position familiar to skydivers. Unlike Baumgartner’s aircraft-style pressure style suit, Eustace’s was based on a NASA EVA suit, but it’s an entirely new design.
“Basically, they put the capsule that Felix Baumgartner jumped with on Alan’s chest, a 200-pound pack with oxygen, environmental controls, carbon scrubbers, communications devices. All of that was developed in an integral unit that Alan carried on his chest,” Hayhurst said.
Not surprisingly, it made for a high landing weight of some 450 pounds. While Baumgartner managed an easy stand-up landing in his unpressurized suit, Eustace did a somewhat ungainly face plant and pitch pole, thanks to the extra weight. The landing plan called for Eustace to surf on the life support unit during landing, but that proved difficult to pull off, in part because of low-wind conditions. Nonetheless, he emerged uninjured, owning records for the highest exit altitude record and the longest drogue fall. He also remained in control throughout the jump, while Baumgartner did not, entering a fast, uncorrectable spin for more than a minute.
Eustace reached 622 mph and Mach 1.23 at 100,000 feet while Baumgartner achieved about 640 mph and Mach 1.24 at 90,000 feet, before hitting denser air and decelerating. Both jumpers generated a shock wave heard on the ground.
Although Eustace still has two more balloons, Hayhurst thinks he’ll retire from any more efforts and let Paragon take the lead. “I don’t see any point in going any higher. It’s an expensive, deep-pocket proposition for sure. I think he’ll try to move into the scientific applications from this point forward,” Hayhurst said.