Starting before dawn, Eustace’s helium-filled balloon rose for two hours above the New Mexico desert, near Roswell. When he reached peak altitude, he freed himself by firing a small explosive device, then plummeted at speeds over 800 mph. Eustace even broke the sound barrier, but he told the Times that he neither felt, nor heard the boom. Observers on the ground did, though.
Eustace’s jumped from nearly a mile and a half higher than Baumgartner’s October 14, 2012 record of 128,100 feet. His operation was also markedly different from Baumgartner’s Red Bull-sponsored jump, which had been preceded by years of marketing hype. Eustace planned his jump in secret with a tiny cabal of fellow engineers and technologists helping design the gear and plan logistics. He even declined support from Google, where he is vice president of search, because he didn’t want his stunt to become a public relations event.
Eschewing a complex capsule like the one used by Baumgartner, Eustace has nothing between himself and the stratosphere but his space suit. Paragon Space Development Corporation, a company that makes life support devices, coordinated the technical and logistical challenges of the project, which they called StratEx (short for Stratospheric Explorer). “The core team consisted of less than 20 people,” Taber MacCallum, formerly of Paragon, told WIRED.
“One of the most amazing things we learned was how to bring somebody back from that altitude,” MacCallum said. On Baumgartner’s Red Bull jump, he had a really hard time stabilizing himself, as the enormous velocities he accumulated in the thin upper stratosphere came crashing into the thicker air below. “In skydiving, you control your movements with your arms,” MacCallum said. At such high speeds, even the smallest movements make a huge difference, and it becomes very hard to control yourself. “On the Red Bull jump, we saw that even one of the best skydivers in the world could not safely bring himself back alone,” he said. The StratEx team overcame this problem by developing a stabilization device, called Saber, that looks like a huge shuttlecock.
Skydiving from the stratosphere isn’t just useful for daredevils chasing the brink of extremeness. Grant Anderson, Paragon’s president, says the technology it developed would be crucial for helping everybody from tourists to the military go to, and return safely from, the upper atmosphere. “So much of what we did was new, from the tech that helped keep the suit cool, to the communications we used to stay in contact, to the balloon system for releasing him,” Anderson said.
Neither Anderson nor MacCallum would say how much the project cost, and at this point we don’t know if Eustace paid for it himself, or secured outside funding.
MacCallum, a co-founder of Paragon, recently joined World View, a company that hopes to leverage StratEx into balloon-borne, edge-of-space tourism. “World View has acquired all the ballooning and stratospheric tech from Paragon,” MacCallum said.
As of publication, Google’s search results are still returning Felix Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos jump as the record for highest sky dive. Time to get back to work, Alan.
Below is a video, provided by Paragon, of the jump.