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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Skydiving From the Edge of Space 05-29

On May 8, 2013, Alan Eustace, then the 56-year-old senior vice president of knowledge at Google, jumped from an airplane18,000 feet above the desert in Coolidge, Arizona. Anyone watching would have witnessed an odd sight: Eustace was wearing a bulky white space suit—the kind nasa astronauts wear. He looked like a free-falling Michelin Man.

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Through his giant space helmet and oxygen mask, Eustace could see the ground stretched out for miles. But the view wasn’t his main concern. He hadn’t quite worked out how to control the space suit, which, unlike a typical skydiving suit, weighed about 265 pounds and was pumped full of pressurized air. Eustace, an experienced skydiver, knew how to shift his body to change direction or to stop himself from spinning—a problem that, if uncorrected, can lead to blackout, then death. But when he started to rotate—slowly at first, then faster and faster—his attempts to steady himself just made things worse. He felt like he was bouncing around inside a concrete box.

At 10,000 feet, Eustace pulled a cord to open his parachute. Nothing happened. Then he tried a backup cord. That one didn’t work either. Eustace knew better than to panic: Three safety divers had jumped with him to monitor his fall. Within seconds, one of the divers reached across Eustace and yanked open the main chute.

All Eustace had to do now was depressurize his suit, which would deflate it and allow him to steer himself toward the landing area. He reached for a dial on the side of the suit and turned it. Nothing happened. With the suit still pressurized, Eustace couldn’t extend his arms overhead to grab the handles that controlled the chute. He began slowly drifting off course. Soon he lost sight of the safety divers. He tried to radio for help, but got no response. He now had a more pressing problem: As he approached the ground, he saw that he was headed straight for a giant saguaro cactus. Unable to maneuver his chute, he leaned as far to the right as he could and just managed to avoid the cactus, instead landing headfirst in the sand.

Eustace’s jump from 18,000 feet above Coolidge, Arizona, in May 2013—his first test
of the space suit in action (Daniel Blignaut) 

He craned his neck to look around. The suit was still pressurized, which meant that he didn’t have enough flexibility to take his helmet off to breathe. He tried his radio again. Still dead. He knew the safety divers would have alerted rescuers that he’d gone off course. He just didn’t know how far off course he’d gone. He calculated that he had two hours of oxygen left in his tank. If he sat still and didn’t panic, he should have enough to survive until the rescue team found him. His other option was to try depressurizing the suit again. But if that didn’t work, he’d have wasted a significant amount of oxygen in the effort. He decided to wait until he had just 15 minutes of oxygen left. By that point, he would be desperate enough to try anything.

The sun beat down as Eustace lay by the cactus, watching the meter on his oxygen tank.
Twelve minutes and what felt like an eternity later, he heard the sound of an approaching helicopter. Oh good, he thought, relaxing. I’m nowhere near dead.

Which was fortunate, because this was only a practice round. What Eustace was gearing up for was something much more dangerous: a jump from seven and a half times the altitude, the highest ever attempted. A skydive from the edge of space.

The whole thing began innocently enough. Eustace was sitting in his office at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, one day in late 2008 when his boss Sergey Brin dropped by. Brin knew Eustace had skydived recreationally in the past, and wanted to know whether he thought it would be possible for someone to jump out of a Gulfstream, a large, expensive private jet that Brin sometimes used.

Brin had already asked around, but almost everyone he’d consulted—Gulfstream pilots, military skydivers, even the company that makes the jet—had advised against it. Gulfstreams fly at much higher speeds than typical jump planes, so fast that experts worried anyone exiting midair would risk getting sucked into the engine, or hitting the tail of the plane, or getting burned to death by the exhaust.

Eustace wasn’t a jet pilot, or a professional daredevil. He was an engineer from Florida who had designed computer-processing units for 15 years in Palo Alto before Larry Page persuaded him to join his growing company over breakfast one morning in 2002. Eustace hadn’t been skydiving in 26 years, but the idea intrigued him: He wasn’t convinced that the skeptics were right. As an engineer, he preferred to approach a problem from first principles. If it was impossible, why? What was the trajectory of the exhaust? Would the FAA grant approval to open the door mid-flight, which would require circumventing the user manual?

Eustace spent the next few months trying to answer these questions, in between projects that demanded his more immediate attention. He eventually lined up a skydiver to try a jump out of a Cessna Caravan, another high-speed aircraft. Luckily, the skydiver landed without incident. What’s more, he filmed himself. When Eustace brought Brin the footage, Brin seemed surprised that he had followed up. But by this point, Eustace was hooked—and he was starting to consider trying the jump himself. All he’d have to do was get reacquainted with the equipment and do a couple of test jumps.
In August 2010, Eustace took a few days off and went down to the suburbs of Los Angeles, where he did six practice jumps with an instructor, a professional stunt skydiver named Luigi Cani. The two hit it off—Cani was warm and friendly, and seemed up for anything. He loved the Gulfstream idea.

A few months later, Eustace was back home in Mountain View when his phone rang. It was Cani. He wanted to know whether Eustace had heard about a guy named Felix Baumgartner, who was after an even bigger challenge: He was trying to beat the high-altitude-skydiving record with a jump from the upper reaches of the stratosphere, more than 100,000 feet in the air. Cani had found a sponsor to launch a competing effort, and wondered whether Eustace could advise him on the type of equipment he’d need.

Eustace was delighted. He was sure Baumgartner was way ahead—he had backing from the energy-drink company Red Bull, which had hired more than three dozen team members with backgrounds in nasa, the Air Force, and the aerospace industry—but he liked Cani, and wanted to see him create some healthy competition. He agreed to help in any way he could. But before Cani’s effort could kick off, his funding fell through.

Eustace considered this news. He led a quiet, comfortable life. He wasn’t after publicity or adrenaline. But this was the engineering challenge of a lifetime. Forget the Gulfstream. He could attempt the stratosphere jump himself, and fund it with his own savings. He thought for a few months and called Cani to ask for his blessing. Cani laughed, amused. Go for it, he said.

The atmosphere is divided into five layers. The higher you go, the thinner the air, until eventually you hit outer space. The layer closest to Earth, the troposphere, is where weather occurs. The next layer, between 33,000 and 160,000 feet above sea level, is the stratosphere. It marks the beginning of what’s known as “near space”—the threshold between the planet we experience on the ground and the mysteries of the universe beyond. 

Prior to the onset of the space race in the late 1950s, much of the scientific study into high altitudes was focused on the stratosphere. Starting in the 1930s, scientists used high-altitude balloons to gather meteorological data and document various changes in the upper atmosphere. Then, in 1960, a United States Air Force captain named Joseph Kittinger rose 102,800 feet in a gondola suspended from a helium balloon—and jumped. Kittinger was part of Project Excelsior, a pre-space-age military operation designed to study the effects of high-altitude bailouts. An earlier attempt, from 76,400 feet, had almost killed him: His equipment had malfunctioned and he’d lost consciousness; he was saved only by his automatic emergency parachute. His next jump, from 74,700 feet, had gone better. This one—his third—set a high-altitude-skydiving record that would remain in place for more than 50 years.

nasa would soon send a man into orbit, and ambitions would turn to the moon. The expansion of the space program coincided with a series of catastrophic balloon accidents, and exploration into the stratosphere was largely abandoned.

That is, until 2010, when Baumgartner announced that he was going after Kittinger’s record, with the backing of none other than Kittinger himself—plus a hefty sponsorship from Red Bull. Plenty of people had contacted Kittinger over the years, wanting him to help them break the record, but Baumgartner was the first to come with a sound scientific support system, courtesy of Red Bull’s team of professionals. The effort, amplified by Baumgartner’s high-octane personal life, attracted a lot of press.

Eustace was an unlikely competitor. The son of an aerospace engineer for Martin Marietta (a forerunner of Lockheed Martin), Eustace had grown up loving planes, but his first time jumping out of one—18 years old, dragged along by his best friend—he felt less exhilaration than ambivalence. The equipment was primitive—coveralls, thick boots, military-grade parachutes—and Eustace landed hard. The experience was a blur. He didn’t know whether he’d done it right, and he certainly didn’t plan to do it again.

Then the instructor handed him his evaluation. His friend’s jump was terrible, but the instructor had deemed Eustace’s “perfect.” So when his friend wanted to go back a week later, Eustace went along. He enjoyed it much more the second time: He was less nervous, and could actually remember what he had done. He went again, and again, and after his 10th jump, he invested in a higher-performance parachute. Then he mastered a stand-up landing, instead of a drop-and-roll. He learned to dive, swoop, somersault, slow down, and speed up, until skydiving became less like falling than like flying.

Eustace (center) skydiving with friends in 1981, while getting his doctorate in computer science at the University of Central Florida. (Tom Plonka) 

Eustace began skydiving as often as he could manage between classes at the University of Central Florida, where he majored in computer science and went on to get his doctorate.But the more he thought about it, the harder it was for him to imagine someone else doing it. His day job—overseeing Google’s engineers—was all about building technology to solve problems and move people forward. Breaking the record would be a personal challenge, but more important, it would be a chance to push the boundaries of human experience. First, he’d need a suit.

The list of things that can go wrong when parachuting from extreme heights is nearly endless. The stratosphere is cold, for one—the temperature can reach more than 100 degrees below zero. The air is also about 1,000 times thinner than at sea level, which means that without a pressurized suit, bodily fluids start to boil, creating gas bubbles that lead to mass swelling.

The environment is so hostile that high-altitude jumpers have to bring their own. For his record-breaking jump, Kittinger wore a partial-pressure suit—a close-fitting garment with a network of thin inflatable tubes that squeeze the body to make up for the decrease in atmospheric pressure—on top of four layers of clothing for warmth. On the way up, which took about an hour and a half, he rode in an open gondola that contained an oxygen supply, a communications system, altimeters, and the power source for his electrically heated gloves—everything he needed to survive prolonged exposure to the altitude.

But gondolas present their own risks. In 1962, a Soviet air-force colonel named Pyotr Dolgov hit his head on the side of his gondola when he jumped from almost 94,000 feet, cracking the visor of his helmet and accidentally depressurizing his suit. He died before he hit the ground. A few years later, an amateur skydiver from New Jersey named Nick Piantanida was unable to switch from the oxygen supply in the gondola to the one attached to his suit when he reached his intended jump height of 123,500 feet, and had to abort the trip. (An unknown equipment malfunction on his next attempt would be fatal.)

Gondolas are also heavy. Baumgartner’s team was using one that weighed almost 3,000 pounds. Ditching the gondola not only would be safer, Eustace figured, but would also allow him to start his jump from a greater height.

But nobody had ever attempted a stratosphere jump without one. If Eustace was going to rise 26 miles into the air attached to nothing but a helium balloon, he’d need a suit that would provide the same environmental protections—oxygen, instruments, climate control—that a gondola would. In short, he would need a space suit. The problem was that no one had designed or flown a new space suit in about 40 years. nasa has been using essentially the same version of the Apollo suit since the 1970s—and Eustace couldn’t just borrow one of those. He needed a suit that could survive a slow ascent into the stratosphere and a fast descent, with swift changes in temperature and velocity, and that could also support the weight of a giant parachute.

Eustace began to dedicate his nights and weekends to thinking about the design. He was still working 80-hour weeks at Google, but he had a lot of vacation time saved up, and his bosses—Brin and Page—were encouraging. A saying inside the company was that employees should have “a healthy disrespect for the impossible.”

Eustace’s wife, Kathy Kwan, was less enthusiastic. The couple had two daughters, 11 and 16, and she knew the history of the sport. Eustace was so engrossed in the technological challenges that the possibility of death didn’t really enter his mind—any risk, he thought, could be mitigated by enough advance preparation. The couple made an uneasy truce: Kwan would support Eustace’s project, and he would avoid bringing it up—no stratosphere talk at the dinner table. (Kwan politely declined to speak with me, saying she preferred not to dredge up those particular memories.)

In October 2011, a contact in the aviation industry connected Eustace with a married couple named Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, co-founders of Paragon Space Development. MacCallum and Poynter had been two of the eight crew members on the famous Biosphere 2 project of the early ’90s, living in a sealed artificial world for two years to determine whether humans could survive in closed ecosystems beyond Earth. They had started Paragon to create biological and chemical life-support systems for hazardous environments, like the deep sea and outer space.

The couple was used to getting calls from people asking all kinds of crazy things: Can you fly me into space? Would it be possible to strap me to a rocket? But this was the first time they’d heard anyone propose a stratosphere jump without a capsule. MacCallum was intrigued enough to set up a call with Eustace, and the two spoke for more than an hour. A week later, Eustace flew down to Paragon’s headquarters, in Tucson, Arizona, and spent a day presenting his idea.

MacCallum and Poynter soon agreed to lead Eustace’s engineering team. They gathered the company’s leading engineers, mechanics, and flight operators to work on the design, and commissioned ILC Dover—the same manufacturing company that makes nasa’s suits—to build a prototype.

Eustace soon began making regular trips to Tucson for testing. The team put the suit in a wind tunnel and a vacuum chamber to determine how it would hold up in free fall. They hung Eustace from a nylon strap and spun him around so he could practice operating his equipment in midair. Next came a series of thermal tests, to ensure the suit could handle subzero temperatures. Eustace was suspended inside a sealed, liquid-nitrogen-cooled chamber for five hours at a time. Small tubes in the suit were supposed to circulate hot water around his limbs and chest to keep him warm. But the tubes ended at the wrists, meaning that, even with a pair of electrically heated mountain-climbing gloves, Eustace’s hands eventually began to freeze. The team gave him a pair of oven mitts to wear on top of the gloves.

A member of Paragon’s engineering team testing how the suit would respond to changes in air pressure (Volker Kern)

In October 2012, a year into Eustace’s work with Paragon, Felix Baumgartner succeeded in breaking Kittinger’s 1960 record, free-falling to Earth from a height of 127,852 feet. Reporters from all over the world came to witness the event, and a live webcast of the jump racked up more than 8 million views. Rather than deter Eustace, Baumgartner’s jump gave him a test case. Shortly after exiting the capsule, Baumgartner entered a dangerous spin. He was able to right himself in time, but Eustace would be less agile in his suit and knew that he would need to figure out how to avoid the same problem.

Eustace and his team began doing dummy drops from airplanes in the Arizona desert. The test dummy, known as ida (for “Iron Dummy Assemble”), was made from welded high-pressure pipes, the kind used in industrial plumbing. She was dropped from various heights, equipped with a parachute that opened at a preset altitude. She spun wildly on her way down. One time, her arms and legs flew off.

The team tried to fix the problem by introducing a drogue—a round parachute about six feet across that is supposed to add stability. The Coolidge jump, in May 2013, was Eustace’s first chance to test the equipment himself. While nearly everything went wrong, the biggest problem remained spin. Eustace began spinning almost immediately after he left the plane, even with the drogue, and the suit was too rigid to allow him to correct himself midair the way he would during a skydive from a lower altitude.

After the Coolidge jump, the team decided to raise the attachment point of the drogue, moving it from the seat of the suit to the back of the neck. That would make Eustace fall at a slight angle, and therefore not spin. To keep his arms from getting tangled up in the strings when the chute deployed, the engineers added a boom that would extend when the drogue opened and keep it at a safe distance from the suit. They called the system saeber.

When the team tested the system on ida from 120,000 feet, her spinning slowed from 400 rpm to 22 rpm, a gentle pirouette. Eustace did more practice jumps, learning to stick out his elbows to correct himself in midair. They were finally ready.

Eustace woke up well before dawn on Friday, October 24, 2014, in a tin shed on an unused strip of land next to the airport in Roswell, New Mexico—a site that had been chosen for its open space and relatively few cacti. The weather was perfect.

He spent two hours sitting in a vinyl recliner behind the shed breathing pure oxygen, to prevent decompression sickness. He drank water and Gatorade. Occasionally he stood and did some stretches to get nitrogen out of his tissues. Then he pulled on a diaper—it would be a long ride up—and was helped into his suit by four team members. They attached two GoPros to his chest and wheeled him out to the launchpad on a dolly.

Kwan had chosen to stay home. The girls had school that day—Eustace and Kwan had decided to keep them on their normal schedule—but had been granted permission to bring their phones to class so they could get updates from the launch site. The Paragon team and a single reporter from The New York Times would be the only onlookers.

The team strapped Eustace to a massive helium balloon—525 feet in diameter when fully inflated, roughly the size of a football stadium—and untethered it from the launchpad. Just like that, Eustace was on his way. He felt relaxed, almost drowsy, as the balloon rose above the airport. He worried for a moment that he might fall asleep and miss the jump.

Left: Inflating the helium balloon that would carry Eustace to the stratosphere. Right: Eustace starting his ascent. (J. Martin Harris Photography)

As Eustace drifted higher, he began to make out landmarks: New Mexico’s White Sands, the Rocky Mountains. Crop circles became tiny specks. Whole states appeared and receded. At 70,000 feet, the sky darkened. Delicate cloud formations appeared below him. Eustace felt like he was floating above a lace doily. At 80,000 feet, the curvature of Earth became visible. He turned his head to look for the moon.

Of course, he was also comparing his flight path to the projections, keeping an eye on the time and the stratospheric winds that were expected to kick in and push him east, and doing a mental rehearsal of the emergency procedures. At one point, Eustace stopped climbing fast enough, so ground control radioed him to let him know that it was releasing two 30-pound ballast weights. Each ballast had its own parachute, and he watched with interest as they fell back to Earth.
After two hours and seven minutes, Eustace reached 135,890 feet. This was float altitude: The balloon had expanded as far as it could, so he would not rise farther. Ground control would now detach him by remote control. The countdown began. On “zero,” Eustace felt the balloon snap and drift off. For a single moment, he felt like he was hovering in midair. He did a backflip. Then he did another.

Then saeber kicked in, launching the drogue and pushing Eustace into a downward position, facing Earth. The stratosphere was quiet as Eustace began free-falling, but soon he could hear the rush of air inside his helmet. He passed 822 miles an hour, breaking the speed of sound. At about 8,300 feet above the ground—after four minutes and 27 seconds of free fall—Eustace deployed his main parachute. Nine and a half minutes later, he landed with a smile on his face. His team rushed over, barely able to contain the whoops and yeahs. The record was his.

The Times reporter’s story would not run until later that day, and Eustace’s reception was decidedly more muted than Baumgartner’s. After he was freed from the suit, he helped clean up the landing site, check the GoPro footage, and wrap up the parachute. That night, the whole team went to a Mexican restaurant in Roswell. Eustace was on his third margarita when he got a text from his sister, who was at a bar in Florida and, by some cosmic coincidence, had bumped into none other than Joseph Kittinger. Recognizing him, she went up to him and said, “Hey, did you know that my brother just broke your record?” Kittinger congratulated Eustace by phone the next day and invited him to have a beer sometime. Baumgartner, too, released a statement congratulating him.

The next Monday, Eustace was back behind his desk at Google.

Last December, Eustace’s suit was put on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia. In the two and a half years since the jump, Eustace has given countless talks about the suit—at nasa, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, SpaceX. But most people still don’t know that Eustace broke Baumgartner’s record. “If someone says, ‘Hey, this is the guy who holds the record for the highest-altitude jump,’ ” he told me, “people will usually just turn to me and ask, ‘Oh, are you Felix?’ ”

He retired from Google a few months after the jump to focus on his own projects—including consulting for a space-tourism company called World View, which MacCallum and Poynter helped form while Eustace was working on his jump. Ventures including SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have been working on ways to send civilians into space on rockets. World View is building an eight-person spacecraft that will float up into the stratosphere using a helium balloon, then detach and float back down with the help of a steerable parachute, like the one Eustace used. The trip will be significantly cheaper than going into space—$75,000 a ticket compared with about $250,000 for a ride with Virgin Galactic—which, if not quite democratizing the experience, will at least give more people an opportunity for perspective-altering views.

Inside World View’s facility in Tucson sits a full-size replica of the Voyager capsule. It has four big windows and a bubble roof, so everyone on board can have a 360-degree view of space. The capsule has a small bathroom, Wi-Fi, and a bar. It will be a five-hour flight in total: one and a half hours up, then a couple of hours floating at about 100,000 feet before the descent. Eventually, World View hopes to hold wine tastings and photography classes in the stratosphere. The company is targeting late 2018 for its first flight.

Eustace isn’t planning to go—he feels it would be anticlimactic. He had hoped to venture out in his space suit again, but ultimately decided that another jump would put too much strain on his family. So he takes every other chance he gets to launch himself skyward.

A few years after he started working as an engineer, Eustace bough

t a bright-yellow Lockwood AirCam, a small two-seater with an open cockpit. He took me to see it one blustery afternoon in December, in a private hangar at the San Carlos Airport. We drove there from Eustace’s house in his Tesla, to which he had recently upgraded, at Kwan’s urging, from a 2002 Honda Accord.

Eustace in his AirCam (Ian Allen)

I had confessed earlier that I was terrified of heights. “Just don’t scream too loudly in my ear when we’re up there,” he joked as we pulled up to the hangar. “That could really make us crash.”

We geared up: puffy pants and jackets and heavy helmets. Eustace helped strap me into the back seat, then jumped in the front. After a few radio calls to flight control, we pointed down the runway and took off. The plane lived up to its tagline—slow and low—and at first, it was almost like we were floating in a balloon. But as we got higher, flying over the tops of office buildings, the wind picked up. Although I was wearing gloves, my hands started getting numb. I thought about putting them in my pockets, but didn’t want to let go of the sides of the plane, which I was gripping with all my strength. We rose higher and higher and banked right over the San Francisco Bay. The water glittered below us, the bridge stretching across the horizon.

After about 20 minutes, I heard Eustace’s voice in my ear: “Do you want to take control?” There was a small control stick in front of me, which Eustace had shown me how to use before we took off—a slight pull to go higher, a push sideways to turn. Still holding on to the side of the plane with one hand, I used my other to tilt the stick slightly to the right. The plane tilted to the right. “Oh!,” I said, in genuine surprise, forgetting my fear for a moment. “I’m flying!”

Eustace just laughed. “Go higher!” he said.

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