The Story Behind the World’s Highest Sky Dive

By Jeffrey Marlow | June 3, 2016 8:39 am
Eustace jumped from an altitude of 135,889 feet. (Image: NASA)

Eustace jumped from an altitude of 135,889 feet. (Image: NASA)

A year and a half ago, Alan Eustace, a Google senior vice president at the time, set an impressive record. With an exhilarating 14-minute journey from the upper stratosphere to the New Mexican desert, Eustace gained the title of world’s highest sky diver.

The effort was famously discreet – only a close inner circle of family and engineers knew the project was happening – but a new documentary offers a glimpse behind the scenes and into the scientific and engineering advances that made the jump possible. TV and documentary film producer Jerry Kolber got exclusive front-line access to the ambitious effort, which ticked all the boxes of his production wish list. “I’m obsessed with any story of how science can radically transform our world,” Kolber says. “Most great discoveries come as a result of wanting to know what’s on the other side of that hill; that new territory or technology then becomes part of the lexicon that is then built into other discoveries.” (The resulting film, 14 Minutes from Earth, is a part of the up-coming San Francisco Documentary Festival).

Eustace’s motivation is harder to explicate; he is a seemingly reluctant protagonist more focused on the engineering and logistics of the effort than any profound statement of human purpose. The excitement is not in the personal story but in the project itself, which plays primarily as a “boys with toys” drama.

Fortunately, those toys are remarkable – custom-built inventions that will no doubt find technological relevance in the coming decades. Perhaps most important was Eustace’s novel “high altitude descent system”, marked by a painstakingly designed parachute deployment system which “completely eliminates the number one danger in high-altitude descents,” explains Kolber: “the parachute cord wrapping around you and strangling you.” With an entirely self-sufficient suit that could suffice for the long ride up (two hours) as well as the quick trip back down, Eustace didn’t need to rely on a heavy capsule as an ascent ship; thus, the entire launch system could be sent aloft with a smaller (i.e., less expensive, less complicated) balloon.

NASA engineers have also been analyzing video of Eustace’s hard, less-than-graceful landings to improve contingency plans for astronaut safety. To address the many risks facing space travelers, developing personal suit-scaled modes of re-entry and launch abort procedures has been a grail for the human spaceflight program. Nonetheless, decades of novel designs and models haven’t been actualized, and according to Kolber, “Alan’s space suit is the first new space suit design in a very long time.” ILC Dover, which has built suits for NASA astronauts since the 1960s, achieved less leakage at higher pressures than ever before with Eustace’s suit. It won’t be winning any fashion awards, but the integration of aerodynamics, durability, and mobility are seemingly unprecedented.

A couple of years before Eustace’s jump, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner performed a similar jump (from 128,000 feet) as part of a Red Bull-sponsored extreme sports program, and the two efforts draw natural comparisons. Most striking was the publicity strategy. The Red Bull Stratos project “was an incredible achievement, but was driven first and foremost by marketing dollars,” says Kolber. Eustace’s more under-the-radar, results-oriented effort meant Kolber was a fly on the wall rather than a director of the action. “The biggest challenge was to figure out how to be in 15 places at once,” he says; “there was so much going on at any given time, you can’t cover everything.”

“For Alan, this was always a science mission,” Kolber explains. “The fact that they got so far – and did it all safely – was really impressive to witness.”

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The Extremo Files

The Extremo Files traces the science that is pushing the boundaries of biology, from the deep sea to outer space to the brave new world of synthetic biology.

About Jeffrey Marlow

Jeffrey Marlow is a geobiologist exploring the limits of life, from the role of microbes in global elemental cycles to the possibility of life beyond Earth and the brave new world of synthetic biology. He received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology and is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar at Harvard University, where he studies the inner workings of methane-metabolizing organisms.

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