Meanwhile, Red Bull Stratos Science Team Reveals More of the Technology Breakthroughs that Reassure Pilot
As his Red Bull Stratos freefall from the edge of space looms ever nearer, mission pilot Felix Baumgartner conceded for the first time that he does experience moments of anxiety.
“The evening before any dangerous skydive, I can’t help thinking that it might be the last night I’ll ever see,” he explained.
The 41-year-old Austrian went on, “While there’s a certain pressure in knowing that the whole world will be watching, there’s more than pride involved here. It can be life or death. No one quite knows what happens to the body while breaking the speed of sound. Parts of my body will be supersonic and others subsonic. This will be a critical moment.”
Baumgartner finds reassurance in the kind of engineering details shared today at Sage Cheshire Aerospace, where the Red Bull Stratos science team introduced prototype technology aimed at bringing him back to Earth – hopefully as a new record holder, but most importantly, safe and sound.
What It Takes to Freefall from the Edge of Space
Besides Baumgartner's “second skin" space suit, the components necessary to safely complete a freefall from 120,000 feet include: a mammoth helium balloon; a pressurized capsule; a chest pack with monitoring, tracking and communications capabilities; and a personal parachute system unlike any other in existence.
Balloon: The 30-million-cubic-foot balloon (more than 10 times larger than the balloon Joe Kittinger used when he set the existing records in 1960) is constructed from high-performance polyethylene film that is only 0.0008 inches thick. Although the balloon material is thinner than sandwich wrap, its size is so vast – 40 acres – that it weighs about 3,000 pounds.
A huge crane (approximately 25 tons) will be used for the delicate launch procedure, when the capsule must be manoeuvered with perfect timing to suspend directly under the massive balloon envelope so that it is lifted cleanly, without dragging. Missed timing or bad positioning would cause a pendulum effect that could bring the capsule to the ground and damage it – endangering the mission and Baumgartner himself.
Capsule: While the capsule’s silver exterior, with an 8-foot-diameter base that tapers to a height of 11 feet, may remind viewers of a space re-entry capsule, it’s the interior, a 6-foot diameter “pressure” sphere, that will be the true focus of attention. Baumgartner will sit in this sphere during the entire ascent of 2.5 hours or more, closely monitoring instrumentation and displays. Unlike Joe Kittinger’s 1960 gondola, which was open to the elements, the sealed and pressurised Red Bull Stratos capsule is intended to serve as a life support system until its occupant reaches jump altitude and pressurizes his suit. And in case unexpected conditions make it inadvisable for Baumgartner to jump from altitude, the mission team has worked to ensure that he can descend safely inside the vessel.
The capsule is equipped with a cluster of three parachutes to soften its landing, and engineers conducted more than 150 drop tests to develop crush pads for its base designed to absorb impacts of up to 6 Gs. Even if, as expected, Baumgartner doesn’t need to descend in the capsule, this landing technology will help to protect the vessel’s data-capture equipment, as well as a camera setup (including digital still cameras, 4K electronic cinematography cameras and high-definition cameras) created to capture his journey for a world audience.
Chest pack: The chest pack will serve as Baumgartner’s technology hub once he steps off the capsule. This container, which Baumgartner will wear over his pressure suit, houses monitoring, tracking and communications systems such as: the voice transmitter and receiver that connect to the helmet; GPS beacons to track his position; telemetry equipment (which enables data capture and monitoring from long distances); an HD camera with a 120-degree view; a package that will be used by the world governing body for air sports and aeronautical world records (the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) to verify the records Baumgartner hopes to establish; and an inertia measurement unit (IMU) that will report altitude (pitch/angle) and spin. The information captured by this equipment will be transmitted to the Mission Control Center in real time, as well as recorded for later reference. The chest pack also reports Baumgartner’s FPS altitude (feet per second, a measurement that encompasses both speed and direction) and Mach number to the pilot himself: Baumgartner will be aware of this data visually via a wrist monitor and audibly via tone monitors. The chest pack has its own battery power supply, as well as a separate battery and control system for defogging and de-icing the visor.
Personal parachute system: No one has ever before completed a supersonic freefall from the edge of space, and the Red Bull Stratos team quickly realized that no existing parachute system could support Baumgartner’s needs. Months of development and testing have resulted in innovations large and small, including extraordinary drogue technology. A drogue is a small chute used for stabilization, and Baumgartner’s drogue is unique in several important aspects: (1) it is constructed to be functional at supersonic speed, and (2) it doesn’t have to be deployed if extra stabilization is not necessary. A third, and truly revolutionary, aspect to the drogue is a G meter that measures both centrifugal forces and their duration: the meter will open the drogue automatically if Baumgartner exceeds 3.5 Gs for 6 consecutive seconds.
The parachute system also includes a 9-cell ram-air main parachute – the only chute Baumgartner will deploy if everything goes according to plan – and a reserve (emergency) parachute designed to deploy automatically at 2,500 feet if needed. Unlike standard parachute systems, Baumgartner has a special handle to cut away his reserve parachute; even though a reserve chute is typically a skydiver’s last, best hope, if Baumgartner’s reserve opened high in the stratosphere and delayed his descent, he could run out of oxygen before he reached breathable air. If Baumgartner must, he will cut away the reserve and trust that his main parachute will deploy as intended.