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Thinking Outside the Gondola

1/8/2015 • Aviation History, Aviation History Briefing, Drafts

On October 24, 2014, Alan Eustace ascended to 135,890 feet wearing a pressure suit with life support system before exceeding the speed of sound in a record-breaking skydive. [J. Martin Harris]
On October 24, 2014, Alan Eustace ascended to 135,890 feet wearing a pressure suit with life support system before exceeding the speed of sound in a record-breaking skydive. [J. Martin Harris]

A little more than two years after Felix Baumgartner’s highly publicized parachute jump from the Red Bull Stratos gondola at 128,100 feet on October 14, 2012, his record fell with little fanfare. Moreover, rather than riding into the stratosphere inside a pressurized gondola, as Baumgartner did, Google executive Alan Eustace depended upon an advanced pressure suit created by ILC Dover Industries and a life support system developed by Paragon Space Development Corporation. Over the course of 2½ hours on October 24, Eustace was hoisted to 135,890 feet by a 450-foot-tall plastic balloon, tethered to what was described as a “beam structure,” or Balloon Equipment Module. Cutting himself loose, he established world records for highest jump and distance of fall with a drogue chute, reaching a top speed of 822 mph, or Mach 1.23, during his 15-minute fall.

Why the notable difference in strategy? Dollars. As senior curator Tom Crouch of the National Air and Space Museum’s Aeronautics Department reported online, Eustace had managed to fund the three-year project to set a new record without any support from Google. “From the outset,” Crouch explained, Eustace’s team “could see little point in spending a lot of money to develop a sophisticated pressurized balloon cabin, only to have to lift such a heavy craft to altitude.”
 

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