With little fanfare, Google executive Alan Eustace broke the freefall parachute record on Friday, October 24, when he disconnected from a balloon at an altitude of almost 136,000 feet. His freefall lasted over four minutes, at which point he deployed his ramair chute and landed safely in a remote area of New Mexico. Unlike the highly publicized and commercialized effort funded by Red Bull that set the record two years ago, Eustace and his small StratEx team worked in secret over the last three years to accomplish the impressive technical feat. I have to give credit to Eustace and his team for keeping their effort quiet, simple, and safe. From the initial video of the flight, it looks like Eustace was literally hanging in the prone position from the bottom of the balloon in nothing but his pressurized suit all the way up to the drop altitude, unlike the complex and expensive capsule that the Red Bull team used in 2012 to allow Felix Baumgartner to break the record. As I wrote in a previous blog post, to me the Red Bull record attempt was more about marketing than real science. The StratEx simplified approach also makes it seem like the Red Bull team made their effort over-complicated so it would seem more difficult and dangerous than it really was.
I’m still skeptical of the applicability of these skydives to aircraft/spaceship crew escape issues at very high altitudes and speeds, but it appears that some of the technology developed for this effort could have some other aerospace applications. The pressure suit technology developed for this freefall was developed by ILC Dover (which has extensive experience developing space suits) and could be applicable to space flight or very high altitude atmospheric flight. Also, the balloon technology could be used to take small payloads to very high altitudes much cheaper than rockets. Though Eustace indicated that he received no funding from Google, is it just a coincidence that Google’s Project Loon has been researching high altitude balloons to beam inexpensive internet to rural areas? It will be interesting to see if Google supplied some balloon technology to StratEx to get some more real world testing of their concepts.
As I’ve always thought, if you are going to try to push the bounds of technical achievement in flight or space, do your work quietly, competently, and safely. If it’s a good effort, the final results will stand on their own merit, and then you can tell your story. You then won’t be in the uncomfortable position of explaining or backtracking if things don’t work out, especially if you raised peoples expectations or over-hyped it. (Can you say Virgin Galactic?) So congrats to Alan Eustace (an engineer, by the way) and his StratEx team for doing this remarkable feat competently, safely, and out of the public eye until success was achieved.