A French parachutist, Michel Fournier, failed in another attempt to break the nearly 50-year old record for highest parachute jump on Sunday. I wrote in a previous blog entry about the current record holder, Joe Kittinger, who set the parachute free fall altitude record of 102,800 feet in 1960. Fournier has been trying to break Kittinger’s record, mostly on his own dime, for a number of years, and hoped to parachute from at least 130,000 feet. Fournier’s project is called “Le Grand Saut” (The Big Jump), and his latest attempt literally never got off the ground when his balloon left without him on the great plains of Saskatchewan, Canada. How the balloon prematurely detached from the pressurized gondola that was to lift Fournier to the planned bailout altitude has not yet been explained.
While Fournier is to be commended for his perseverance (stubbornness?) with this project, I’m not quite sure what the purpose of his attempt is other than to set a sky diving record and get his name in the news. Fournier has claimed one of the main reasons for the project is to determine if an astronaut could survive a bailout at such high altitudes, either on the way to space or during reentry. While this may sound commendable, it really doesn’t make much sense. This is basically a rerun of the type of research completed by the U.S. Air Force and Kittinger in the 50’s and 60’s. At that time, there was a real need for this type of study, as we didn’t know what type of human-rated vehicles would be flying into the upper atmosphere, or even into space. What type of escape system would be best-suited for such a vehicle, conventional ejection seats, escape capsules, a combination of the two? The Air Force program showed that a man could conceivably survive a bailout from an aerospace vehicle at altitudes up to 100,000 feet. As it turned out, this is about the upper altitude limit of a high performance, open ejection seat. (The Lockheed SR-71, which has ejection seats for the crew, has officially flown to at least 85,000 feet, while unofficially it can probably go to at least 100,000 feet). Even at that altitude, you better be wearing a pressure suit or you are not going to survive the ejection.
After the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, I was asked to be part of a team of ejection seat experts tasked by NASA to study escape systems for the remaining shuttle fleet. While the results of our study showed that ejection seats would probably have saved the Challenger astronauts, their use was limited to a narrow portion of the Shuttle flight envelope during both launch and reentry. Also, with up to seven astronauts on a shuttle mission, the cost and weight penalty for retrofitting the shuttle fleet with ejection seats was too much for NASA to pay. In the end NASA decided to go with an inhouse-developed manual bailout system, which can only be used in a very narrow portion of the shuttle flight envelope – much narrower than ejection seats. (Some critics have said this system is so limited it is more of a placebo for the astronauts than a viable escape system.) When you start operating manned aerospace vehicles above 100,000 feet, you really need some type of capsule system for emergency escape, especially if you have more than one crewmember. Fournier’s attempt to successfully bail out from 130,000 feet is not really going to tell us much more about escape from extreme altitudes. (As an aside, when SpaceShipOne set an altitude record of over 365,000 feet in 2004, the pilot, Brian Binnie was wearing a backpack parachute for an emergency. However, he was not wearing a pressure suit – the cockpit was pressurized – and it is very doubtful if he would have survived a manual bailout from any mishap occurring over 70,000 feet.) Most studies I’ve seen of future launch vehicles indicate a preference for some type of capsule escape, including the newest manned NASA launch vehicle, Orion. Fournier has vowed to try again later this summer, but at this point maybe it should just be renamed “The Big Stunt”.