Red Bull Stratos team gets closer to supersonic freefall attempt
By Ben Coxworth
July 2, 2010
Later this year, Felix Baumgartner will put on a pressurized space suit and helmet, climb into a capsule suspended beneath a balloon, ride 120,000 feet into the earth’s upper atmosphere, then jump out and – before deploying his parachute – try to break the speed of sound while in freefall. That’s the plan, at least, for the insanely-dangerous Red Bull Stratos event. If successful, it will constitute the world’s highest manned balloon flight, highest parachute jump, and fastest and longest freefall. The team conducted three important tests in the last week of May, that they just released the details of this week. What those tests entailed would probably be hair-raising enough to last most of us a lifetime.
The first two tests took place at the Sage Cheshire Aerospace Center in Lancaster, California. There, with the capsule hanging from a crane, Baumgartner practiced his step-off. “We had no idea what’s going to happen to the capsule as he slides the seat forward, climbs out and steps off,” said Aerial Strategist Luke Aikins. “We were worried that if the capsule moved, he wasn’t going to get a good exit, but it’s pretty stationary. So we were able to eliminate those issues.”
The next step involved a space-suited Baumgartner doing bungee jumps from a crane basket suspended 200 feet in the air. The purpose of this test was to let him get a feel for controlling his forward rotation as he stepped off. After several jumps, he appeared to have mastered the technique.
Finally, again in his suit, Felix made a series of high-altitude skydives. Objectives of this test included perfecting his step-off, assessing how different body positions affected controllability, observing how the suit deflated upon descent, and trying out a new chest pack unit that can be moved to one side when Baumgartner needs to spot his landing site. Everything, apparently, went smoothly.
If the name Felix Baumgartner sounds at all familiar, that’s because he’s the same guy who jumped out of a plane with a set of wings on his back and glided across the English Channel, back in 2003. The Red Bull Stratos team, however, insist that their event isn’t just a stunt. “You’ve got a lot of companies that are vying for the role of being the commercial space transport provider for tourism, for upper atmospheric science, and so on,” said Medical Director Dr. Jonathan Clark . “These systems, particularly during the test and development phase, need a potential escape system, which we may be able to help them provide with the knowledge we gain.”