31 October 2014
FACT SHEET: RED BULL STRATOS / ALAN EUSTACE
On October 24, 2014, reports indicated that American Alan Eustace completed a stratospheric parachute descent that topped the altitude record set by the Red Bull Stratos mission of October 14, 2012. This is a great achievement that deserves honest respect and acknowledgement. Red Bull Stratos was a scientific mission to prove that humans could survive accelerating through the sound barrier in free fall. Learnings are already being applied by organizations including the US Air Force and NASA and were intended to accelerate interest in aerospace science, engineering and medicine.
The two attempts were quite different in their approach. While little official data is available, the following information is based on current media reports.
Which Red Bull Stratos records were broken by Alan Eustace?
Official information may not be available for some time, as all record claims must be submitted to the world governing body, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) for review and ratification, a process that may take weeks or months. However, because Alan Eustace used a drogue/stabilization parachute to stabilize his descent, it’s expected that most of the categories in which he might be eligible for records will be different than those set by Felix Baumgartner.
Records of Felix Baumgartner that still stand:
• First person to break the speed of sound in free-fall, without the protection or propulsion of a vehicle
• Maximum Vertical Speed without Drogue or Stabilization Device (official FAI category): 843.6 mph / 1,357.6 kmh
Eustace’s effort would not fall into the same category because he did use a drogue/stabilization device. Further, the New York Times reports that Eustace’s top speed was 822 mph, slower than Felix’s top velocity.
• Vertical Distance of Free-fall without Drogue or Stabilization Device (official FAI category): 119,431.1 feet / 36,402.6 meters Eustace’s descent distance would not be eligible in the same category as Felix because, unlike Felix, Eustace used a drogue/stabilization parachute.
Record of Felix Baumgartner that appears to have been broken:
• Highest Exit Altitude (official FAI category): 38,969.4 meters / 127,852.4 feet above mean sea level
The New York Times reports that the altitude being submitted to the FAI for Alan Eustace’s descent is 135,890 feet (equivalent to 41,420 meters). It’s assumed that the Highest Exit Altitude category is not impacted by whether the subject used a drogue/stabilization parachute; if that is the case, Eustace’s exit will break Felix’s altitude record. It will be necessary to wait for FAI ratification to know for certain.
Why was it possible for Alan Eustace to complete such a flight without a capsule and much less “obvious effort?”
Throughout history, aerospace projects have built on the knowledge gained by those that have gone before. Red Bull Stratos benefited from the learnings of Joe Kittinger’s Excelsior III jump in 1960. In turn the Red Bull Stratos team hoped that the insights gained in developing Felix’s flight test program would inform future programs – making the experience safer and easier for those who followed.
Eustace’s effort benefited from knowledge gained during Red Bull Stratos: former members of the Red Bull Stratos team with expertise in meteorology, aerospace medicine and balloon flight appear to have been consulted.
As for why it was possible for Eustace to make his ascent without a capsule: Part of research and learning is trying out different approaches. Joe Kittinger didn’t ascend in a capsule either – he used an open gondola. The Red Bull Stratos team directed by Art Thompson and Sage Cheshire Aerospace insisted on the use of a pressurized enclosed capsule for safety. A pressurized capsule made it less likely that Felix would experience decompression sickness, and provided a backup life support system in the case anything happened to his pressure suit. The suit manufacturer, David Clark Company, approved the first sale of space suits to Sage Cheshire Aerospace because of the obvious scientific nature of the program and the capsule environment that was a prerequisite of the program flight test team.
And finally, the capsule enabled extensive data capture for research purposes and also enabled use of the camera systems that not only monitored Felix’s well-being throughout the flight, but also shared the historic event with the world. In fact technology from the capsule development and high altitude cinematography have in themselves been valuable on many levels in the aerospace industry. As just one example, Art Thompson, the program’s technical director, reports that after studying the atmosphere created in Felix’s capsule, the altitude pressure inside U-2 aircraft has been changed to reduce pilots’ decompression sickness. The size of the balloon is determined by the payload it has to carry, which directly effects the complexity of the launch procedure. The Red Bull Stratos balloon was 30 MCF, the largest manned balloon ever flown and capable of flying larger scientific payloads.
How was it possible for a 57-year-old who is not a professional athlete to make such a jump?
One difference between Eustace’s jump and Felix’s was that Eustace used a drogue parachute – a small stabilization parachute designed to reduce the tendency of objects to spin uncontrollably when falling from high altitudes.
To have the best chance of reaching the speed of sound, Felix did not want to use the drogue available in his parachute rig unless absolutely necessary. Even though the drogue would have made his descent easier physically, it would have slowed him. So in addition to the 20 years of experience he already possessed as a skydiver and BASE jumper, he trained specifically on how to use body movements to control spinning. Even so, Felix did enter a spin during his free-fall, and it took all of his skill and experience to stop it without using his drogue.
As a result, many experts agreed with Joe Kittinger when he deduced after Felix’s jump that “if a highly trained jumper with 2,500 jumps [Felix] is unable to prevent spinning following egress from extreme altitudes, an astronaut, pilot or space tourist could not overcome this spinning probability” and that “future exploration to qualify a drogue parachute for extreme altitudes is certainly indicated.”
The lift-off of a capsule to the stratosphere has to be just perfect to prevent spinning and tumbling right from the start. It has to be carefully integrated into the egress scenario extensively, and requires perfect coordination and planning.
Was all the time, effort and technology involved in Red Bull Stratos really necessary, or was it for the sake of marketing?
The Red Bull Stratos technical project director, Art Thompson, and the team felt that the effort was absolutely necessary to achieve the mission’s objectives, the most important of which was to keep Felix Baumgartner safe. In trying to break the speed of sound in free-fall for the first time, the mission was facing many unknowns and needed to proceed as a flight test program with a progressive scientific build up and procedures. Team members including Col. Joe Kittinger expressed interest in joining the program only if it was to be carried out with the highest safety standards, and Thompson has often said, “Even our backup systems had backup systems.” Further, in addition to protecting Felix, the project’s scope was extensive to provide the best possible scientific data in a variety of areas for future applications.
Will Red Bull Stratos challenge this new altitude record?
Red Bull Stratos was a pioneering scientific test program that fulfilled its purpose: By realizing his long-held dream of becoming the first person ever to break the speed of sound in free-fall, Felix Baumgartner and the team proved that it was possible to safely accelerate through the sound barrier without the protection or propulsion of a vehicle – important information that the scientific community had long debated. The mission provided useful data that other researchers at agencies like NASA and the U.S. Air Force are already building upon to improve aerospace safety, including researchers considering how emergency escape may someday be possible from aircraft at ultra-high altitudes. Felix Baumgartner and the program’s team of leading experts always hoped that the results of their five-year scientific flight test program would provide valuable new information and accelerate interest in aerospace science, engineering and medicine. Sage Cheshire Aerospace continues to develop systems for space safety and launching stratospheric payloads promoting scientific learning and STEM education.