Part One: Stratos, continued
5. First Jump
The balloon and capsule are 10,000’ high but still easily visible to the naked eye when I step back inside mission control. Outside, the helicopters bearing the recovery teams and Brian Utley send up a cloud of dust and fly noisily away, beating a course to the east. Utley is riding in the lead helicopter so he can be with the first responders when Felix lands, and take immediate custody of the chest pack with its GPS receiver/data-logger inside.
Utley’s on-site recovery of the chest pack is actually a bit of scripted drama for the sake of the Red Bull cameras, because earlier this morning, we covered the entry port to the GPS logger with tamper-evident silver foil seals bearing “U.S. Parachute Association” (ops-tested in my freezer at home to make sure they worked in extreme cold). This procedure is in place to comply with FAI chain-of-custody requirements for data used to certify records. So the truth is, there is really no need to retrieve the chest pack in the field; all that is necessary is that the foil seals be removed under the supervision of an official observer, and that can be done back at mission control when the chest pack returns with Felix.
But I don’t argue the point, because with Brian Utley out in the field, helicoptering after Felix, I have his seat in mission control, with far better situational awareness and the ability to observe and record the unfolding events of the mission—not to mention access to the Keurig machine, which is where I detour for a cup of coffee before going upstairs and settling in for the one-hour climb to altitude that will climax with Felix’s first Stratos jump.
The screens at the front of mission control display five different views: a “capsule cam” close-up of Felix (good thing he’s movie-star handsome), the instrument panel (altitude, cabin pressure, oxygen status, carbon dioxide monitor, mission clock, etc.), a view from the capsule looking down on the earth, a view of the balloon from a powerful video camera on the ground, and finally, a display of the balloon’s ground track over the earth.
The ascent carries Felix east of Roswell over sparsely inhabited countryside, primarily ranch land dotted with huge irrigated crop circles. On the day of my arrival, I take a road trip in this direction, heading east out of town on Highway 70. The landscape is generally flat but rugged in patches, covered by desert grasses and scrub brush.
The drive takes me past the Mescalero Sand Dunes and up the steep Mescalero Escarpment onto the Llano Estacado—high, level plains at the southern end of the Great Plains of North America, extending hundreds of miles north, south and east into the Texas Panhandle—an area bigger than many states. There’s a harsh, barren beauty to this landscape, like the surface of the moon. As the saying goes, it’s “15 percent earth and 85 percent sky.”
Not far from Caprock (blink and you miss it), 44 miles east of Roswell and about 30 miles downrange of the launch site, I pull over to read a New Mexico Scenic Historic Marker:
“Nomadic Indians and countless buffalo herds dominated this vast plain when the Vásquez de Coronado expedition explored it in 1541. Later it was the focus of Comanchero activity and in the 19th century it became a center for cattle ranching. The name Llano Estacado, or stockade plains, refers to the fortress-like appearance of its escarpments.”
Coronado had hoped to reach the mythical Seven Cities of Gold, and instead found the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River and the Llano Estacado. On it, Coronado was awed, his men and horses lost in the featureless plains. He felt as if his army had been swallowed up by the sea.
If all goes well, this is where Felix will land under his parachute.
The thousand-feet-per-minute ascent is predictable yet anything but boring, every minute laden with dramatic tension, punctuated by periodic system checks initiated by Joe Kittinger—mostly Felix reading gauges that everyone in mission control can already see. I wonder if the routine isn’t in part just to keep Felix’s mind occupied and off his faceplate, scant centimeters from his nose, the bottom of the lens fogged with condensation. It’s a physical and psychological barrier that prevents him from taking the deep, unrestrained breath that is his birthright, and at the same time, absolutely essential in order for him to succeed in his quest. Using a special straw, Felix sips water almost compulsively, perhaps another coping mechanism. Whatever works; I can’t help but admire Baumgartner, considering everything he’s overcome to get to this moment.
As the climb progresses, I take notes, periodically using my iPhone to snap pictures of the video screens in front. At 08:40 a.m. Mountain Standard Time (MST), the mission clock shows 00:29:13 elapsed. Altitude: 33,400 feet MSL (above mean sea level). Outside air temp: -17°C. Cabin altitude: 16,300 feet, 7.83 PSI (pounds per square inch; about half of sea-level pressure). Cabin air: 29.1 percent oxygen, 0.02 percent carbon dioxide (the remaining 71 percent nitrogen and trace gases).
Thirty-three minutes later, the capsule is at 60,000 feet and approaching the “Armstrong line,” the altitude above which humans cannot survive in an unpressurized environment, and where the moisture in the eyes, lungs and mouth will boil away (it’s a fallacy that blood in the vascular system boils). At this altitude, no amount of oxygen delivered by any means will sustain life—not unless the oxygen is delivered inside a pressure vessel or pressure suit. Felix is now two times higher than Mount Everest and well beyond any definition of “thin air.” Exposure here will render a human unconscious in seconds; certain death is close behind.
One hour and thirty minutes after launch, at 09:40 MST, the balloon has stopped climbing. The ascent is terminated by the laws of physics—the volume of the balloon, once fully inflated, determines the amount of atmosphere displaced, and the helium-filled envelope becomes a giant beach ball floating in the stratosphere like a cork. This phase of flight is aptly called “float,” and it lasts for about five minutes, peaking at 71,700 feet above sea level.
Joe Kittinger and Felix are completing the eight-minute “egress” (pre-jump) checklist and now Felix has depressurized the capsule, enabling him to open the thick, clear Plexiglas plug door, sliding it to one side of the interior of the capsule, clearing the way for him to pull himself upright and move through the open hatch to the small platform from where he will jump.
Excitement mounts in mission control as Felix separates his oxygen and power umbilical from the capsule. Now his oxygen is supplied by twin bottles mounted on each side of the parachute container, while power for the air-to-ground radio and the anti-fog filaments in his faceplate comes from batteries inside the chest pack. Cameras mounted on booms outside the capsule record the drama as Felix moves through the door and stands on the platform, below him the chasm of a mind-blowingly distant earth, around him an airless, hostile vacuum, the danger invisible but as deadly as a sea of hydrochloric acid. As the legendary Colonel John Paul Stapp, Kittinger’s mentor, once put it, “Think of it as being enveloped in cyanide . . . you are essentially swimming in an invisible poison that will kill you in seconds.”
This is not a place to tarry. After a short countdown, at exactly 09:44:32, Felix takes a measured step and pitches gently forward into the void.
6. First Record
Felix freefalls for approximately three and a half minutes before deploying his parachute. Seven minutes later, while we know the jump went well, we don’t have a clue as to his location or physical condition. The position telemetry from the chest pack didn’t transmit and the chase helicopters weren’t able to spot him under canopy. Assuming a seven-minute descent, Felix is already on the ground, and we can only hope he landed safely. I imagine he’ll be tough to find—little more than a speck, adrift on the seas of the Llano Estacado.
Then, after several anxious minutes pass by, one of the chase helicopters spots him on the ground. A few moments later, a video screen flickers to life.
There’s Felix standing tall in his white pressure suit, his helmet perched on top of the red-and-white Red Bull parachute, lying in a tidy heap on the desert floor.
A cheer of triumph and relief erupts from mission control.
It’s 10:00 a.m. MST.
Minutes later, we’re watching live video of Felix swarmed by a jubilant team of first responders. There’s Mike Todd with the parachute harness/container slung over one shoulder, reaching out to shake Felix’s hand, while the camera crew (including a boom mike operator) moves in to capture the moment.
With hands on his hips and a triumphant grin on his face, Felix looks for all the world like Sam Shepard in a scene from “The Right Stuff.” And next to him, basking in reflected glory, there’s Brian Utley, cradling the chest pack in his arms.
With Baumgartner safe and sound on the ground, now the attention of mission control turns to recovering the capsule, which still floats under the balloon at 71,700 feet.
After confirming with the air traffic control liaison that the airspace is clear below, a radio signal is sent to cut the capsule free. Moments later, the ground-to-air camera transmits remarkable live video of the capsule plummeting under the orange and white recovery parachute.
Another cheer erupts in mission control. It’s apparent the skirt of the canopy has been reefed nearly shut, making it oddly onion-shaped, something like a Christmas ornament with a capsule dangling below it by threads. In this configuration, the parachute functions as a fast-falling drogue, minimizing exposure to the Jetstream and keeping winds from carrying the capsule eastward into neighboring Texas.
Side note: Attached to the balloon is a “kill line” that uses the weight of the dropped capsule to rip the envelope open, causing its helium to escape and the carcass of the balloon to plummet to the earth for immediate recovery … dispelling this observer’s erroneous concern that the balloon would fly off, circling the earth for weeks before eventually landing on some glacier in Greenland, leaving thousands of square feet of polyethylene plastic to slowly decay and break into pieces, potentially to be swallowed by hapless Arctic wildlife.
At 20,000 feet MSL, approximately 15,000 feet above the terrain, a second signal is sent from mission control, firing a pyrotechnic that cuts the reefing line encircling the lower skirt of the parachute. It smoothly blossoms open into the familiar umbrella shape of a round canopy. With the parachute fully inflated, now the capsule descends at a safe vertical velocity of 22-25 feet per second, and chances of it landing undamaged are vastly improved. For the third time, mission control erupts into cheers. Remarkably, the ground camera is able to follow the capsule under canopy until it disappears over the horizon.
At 10:32 a.m., the helicopter carrying Felix returns to the airfield, landing in front of mission control. I snap a picture and label it, “Hail the returning hero.”
Fittingly, the first person to greet Felix as he climbs out of the helicopter is Joe Kittinger. Close behind is Art Thompson, who gives Felix a well-deserved bear hug. While Felix entertains a parade of well-wishers and then does interviews, Brian Utley carries the chest pack inside. We open the case to find the foil seal undisturbed. I take a picture with my iPhone, evidence of chain-of-custody.
At 10:41 a.m., I take another picture as Utley uploads the recorded GPS data from a micro-SD card into his laptop.
We get our first view of the data at 10:42. After over a decade of evaluating records using GPS data, Brian has developed an uncanny ability to interpret the raw data in its basic form, in a text file containing NMEA (National Marine Electronics Association) sentences like this:
The data are imported into a custom Excel spreadsheet using the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) programming language, which automatically parses the records, produces relevant parameters (time, altitude, position) and presents it in tabular form. From this data, the program calculates vertical speed and extracts significant events such as launch, exit, parachute opening and landing. In addition, the program determines the altitude and time of maximum velocity and (if the outside air temperature is known) calculates the associated Mach number.
Scanning the raw data, Utley frowns. He sees numerous lines of data with unacceptable quality, starting from the launch and continuing through the ascent, increments of time ranging from “marginally acceptable” to “unusable.” After exit, the signal is unusable for the first 17 seconds of freefall (we subsequently learn that Felix flipped over on his back, blocking the GPS antenna’s view of satellites), then it resumes and remains of acceptable quality through landing. Fortunately, on this jump, the only FAI record to be claimed is vertical velocity, and the data are solid when Felix reaches his peak velocity of 586.8 kph (364.4 mph).
Utley heads outside to make an announcement of the record to a group of invited press and the documentary film crew. I remain upstairs in mission control, watching replays of various mission tapes and following the recovery of the capsule. The recovery team sends images of the capsule safely on the ground, tipped on its side but undamaged, gently tugged by a still partially inflated parachute. Later that morning, we watch dramatic footage taken from a GoPro camera mounted on the leg of Felix’s pressure suit. Despite going over on his back after exit, he remains in complete control throughout the fall. He remarks that the long fall seemed to take an eternity—that he kept thinking he needed to pull, only to check his altimeter and discover he was passing through 50,000 feet, then 30,000 feet, etc. During the video, he checks his ripcord three different times before pulling it at 8,500 feet above sea level.
As it turns out, this is only 4,500 feet above the underlying desert, so Felix’s canopy ride is short—less than five minutes. Looking upward from the wide-angle view of the leg cam, we watch him sling his chest pack to one side, stow his ripcord and reach up to release his steering toggles. The last seconds of the video show him making a difficult no-wind landing, running furiously to stay on his feet. Making a stand-up landing is a point of pride for skydivers, and Felix’s effort elicits an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, me included.
As I reflect on this jump now, I think of Felix alone in the desert for those seven minutes before the recovery helicopters swooped in. I imagine the moment after he removed his helmet and took his first deep breaths, inhaling the hallowed air of ancient plains where buffalo once roamed, feeling larger than life for his splendid achievement yet small in the vastness of earth and sky, grateful for a successful jump and grateful to be alive. I can’t help but think that one day he will look back and value that experience as much as any of his world records—the moment when he experienced glory in its purest form.
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