As Red Bull Stratos grows increasingly near to realization, the mission’s aeronautics experts today announce encouraging results from the latest high-altitude test jumps and step-off procedure tests. Mission pilot Felix Baumgartner himself acknowledges feelings of both satisfaction and apprehension while the team prepares to move into a new phase of testing.
Choreographing the step-off, nailing the landing
During the last week in May 2010, the Red Bull Stratos team conducted three important tests:
- Step-off from the actual capsule
- Bungee jumps in the pressurized space suit to practice step-off technique
- High-altitude skydives in a fully pressurized space suit for the first time
Capsule step-off: At Sage Cheshire Aerospace in Lancaster, California, the capsule dangled from a 40,000-ton crane to simulate its suspension from the balloon flight train, with Baumgartner practicing his movements inside, exiting and stepping off. The purpose was not to simulate freefall – the capsule was only a few feet off the ground – but rather to determine how the vessel reacts to Baumgartner’s motion, and whether those reactions could compromise his descent. Even a relatively gentle tumble created by imprecise step-off could not only hinder Baumgartner’s ability to achieve the streamlined position that may be necessary to break the sound barrier; but it could suddenly devolve into a dangerously rapid “flat spin” once he encounters a level of increased air density. “We had no idea what’s going to happen to the capsule as he slides the seat forward, climbs out and steps off,” says Luke Aikins, the Red Bull Stratos Aerial Strategist and Skydiving Consultant.
“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.”
Step-off technique bungee jumps: Next, the scene turned surreal as a group of pre-eminent aerospace experts and test pilots – including Joe Kittinger, who holds the records Baumgartner will try to break – gathered in a deserted Lancaster fairground to witness something they’d never seen during all their combined years of experience: a bungee jump in a pressurized space suit and helmet. “You wouldn’t normally think of a bungee jump in terms of prepping for a high-altitude jump, but it gives Felix the sensation of what it’s like to step off and try to control his forward rotation,” comments Art Thompson, the mission’s Technical Project Director. After multiple jumps from a crane basket suspended 200 feet above the ground, Baumgartner’s exit technique had evolved into something that one team member described as “perfect.” “We still have an unknown, which is what happens to my body when I break the speed of sound; but at least we’re going to know that I’m able to handle the step-off,” Baumgartner states.
High altitude skydives: The finale to the week of testing was a series of skydives over the desert in Perris, California, reaching approximately 26,000 feet. This test, conducted on May 27, 2010, was a follow-up to a similar day of flights in early spring, when Baumgartner had been frustrated by the awkwardness of his equipment, especially by the way his chest pack – a vital technology hub for the descent – jammed his helmet and inhibited movement on descent and, additionally, blocked his vision while landing. Objectives were to get a clean step-off from the rear-exit airplane; assess controllability and various body positions in the fully pressurized suit; experience suit deflation upon descent; and test a new chest pack system that allows one side to move out of Baumgartner’s line of sight so he can spot his landing. Baumgartner’s technique and the improved equipment worked so harmoniously that the team was able to accomplish all objectives. “Every time you practice something you learn more,” a happy Baumgartner noted from the airfield. “Then you go back to your facility, and you change it. Next time you come back and test it again, and if it’s perfect, you move on. I’m super satisfied with the result today.”
Thoughts of mortality, and moving on with the mission
Move on is just what Baumgartner and the mission team are doing as they make final preparations for the next phase of testing, an intense period which will first involve a pressure-chamber test of all capsule systems in simulated conditions of 120,000 feet, followed by successively higher balloon jumps.
Despite his elation with progress made so far, Baumgartner admits that he still has moments of concern. Noting that no amount of technological testing can ever rule out human error, he comments, “My biggest concern is that dangerous part of the project which we just haven’t thought of. We try to think of every contingency, but there’s always going to be something that you would never imagine could happen. And that might kill you.”
Making it evident that mortality is very much on his mind, he says, “I was thinking, ‘Should I bring my mom to the mission or not?’” Explaining that she lives in Austria, he continues, “If everything is successful, I would love to have her on site, because the first person that I would want to talk with is my mom, of course. But if something goes wrong, I definitely don’t want my mum on site, because I don’t want her to witness a fatality. So I still haven’t made up my mind.”
“If I thought this was a suicide stunt, then I – and all the experts that are a part of this team – would never have had anything to do with this,” states Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA crew surgeon who is the mission’s Medical Director. “You’ve got Joe Kittinger, you’ve got test pilots, you’ve got an array of aerospace experts. We’re not doing this as a stunt; we’re doing this as a demonstration that an upper-atmospheric bailout, freefall and re-entry are possible.”
“Things are progressing a lot in terms of the mission’s readiness,” Baumgartner agrees. “Soon this is going to be for real, so to be prepared is a good feeling.”
Stressing the potential applications of the data gathered by Red Bull Stratos, Dr. Clark goes on, “Right now, the Space Shuttle escape system is certified to 100,000 feet. Why is that? Because Joe Kittinger went there. 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. 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.”