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Plunging from the Stratosphere at Record Altitude
By Ric Reynolds
July 25, 2015 - Former Google executive vice president Alan Eustace says he was always interested in the longstanding world altitude record for sky diving. After all, he grew up in the Orlando area—not that far from Cape Canaveral and the site of many space launches during the frantic space race of the 1960s.
“Yes, I was always interested in space-related things,” he said about six hours before taking the stage at Theater in the Woods Friday night to tell AirVenture attendees all about the record-breaking jump. “That particular record is one that I read about and researched a lot. I thought there was a different and better way to approach the problem than the traditional capsule-style that people had done before.”
In August 1960, Joe Kittinger set the mark of 102,800 feet, a feat that would stand for more than five decades. Then Felix Baumgartner and Red Bull Stratos achieved a 127,852-foot free fall on October 14, 2012, to smash the record. Both used capsules to carry them to altitude.
Eustace and his team at Paragon Space Development Systems had been working on their own attempt for about eight months at the time of Baumgartner’s highly publicized jump.
Two years almost to the day after Baumgartner—October 24, 2014—after three years of planning, research, and testing, Eustace set a new sky diving altitude record of 135,890 feet—more than 25 miles above the earth. He was lifted to altitude—sans a capsule, just him in a specially made protective suit—by a helium-filled balloon filled with 35,000 cubic feet of the lighter-than-air gas.
“Most people travel through the stratosphere at Mach 4 or 5, but they don’t get to linger there,” he said. “Our inspiration was more like a scuba diver, something totally self-contained in the stratosphere.”
Eustace is an ATP-certificated pilot. He flies low and slow in an amphibious AirCam, and also flies a Citation 560. He is also a sky diver (the record jump on October 24 was his 569th jump), a balloonist, and generally likes outdoor activities.
Eustace approached Paragon Space Development Systems, which builds suits for toxic environments, and they were thrilled to join the project. Eustace and Paragon formed the StratEx Team.
Roswell was the chosen launch site because it’s a decent enough balloon launch environment, but the real benefit is that virtually all of the terrain eastward is suitable for a parachute landing.
Essentially there are no trees, few lakes, flat terrain, and calm weather, he said. “I wound up 70 miles from the launch point right next to a road. My wingman was there within 11 seconds. Just a perfect place to land.”
Eustace’s specially made protective suit weighed about 235 pounds, so him in the suit tipped the scale just over 400 pounds. He had to be lifted to the launch site by a reach forklift.
Included in the Theater in the Woods presentation was a video showing the launch preparation, the actual launch, ascent, and descent.
Records set included exit altitude, distance fallen with a drogue device (123,435 feet), and vertical speed with a drogue device (820 mph). It took just over two hours to ascend to altitude and 15 minutes to descend.
He did break the sound barrier, and people on the ground heard it.
Looking back on the epic achievement, several months later, Eustace said he gets most pleasure from sharing it with others. “Once the excitement fades away, it’s more about the team and people; you give talks about it and get to share it with other people, and that’s kind of the fun part,” he said.
“It’s a strange feeling. Even right after it I kind of look at it as a detached third person, not actually feeling like I was there.
“I see it, I explain it, but I really don’t think of myself as being in that suit.”