On Sunday, Felix Baumgartner made history by being the first person to skydive from a distance of 23 miles and being the first person to break the sound barrier outside of a vehicle. But he didn’t do it alone. Behind Baumgartner’s extraordinary achievement was some incredibly impressive technology – technology that could be used to further commercial spaceflight.
Making a skydive from 23 miles up in the air means you can’t just wear jeans and a T-shirt. To ensure his own survival, Baumgartner was equipped with a fully pressurized suit. The suit was manufactured by the David Clark Company, which is based in Worcester, MA. The company has been manufacturing flight and space suits for over 50 years. In addition to the suite for Red Bull’s space jump, the David Clark Company also designed space suits for the Gemini missions and Space Shuttle. On the Red Bull side, the suit was maintained by 30-year aerospace veteran Mike Todd, who helped tailor it to Baumgartner’s measurements and suggested other innovations.
The suit is fully pressurized because at the altitude Baumgartner was at, his blood could have literally boiled within his body due to the pressure differential. The suit was also designed with a vent to move both warm air to keep Baumgartner from freezing, and cold air to keep his helmet from fogging. The suit is made of fire retardant material capable of withstanding temperatures as low as -90 degrees Farenheit. The helmet was made out of a composite material and fitted with several redundant safety measures both to prevent it from accidentally coming loose from the suit as well as ensuring that it didn’t ice or fog over.
The Red Bull Stratos capsule has an exterior shell comprised of insulated fiberglass. It surrounds a frame of airplane tubes made from chromium molybdenum, a steel alloy. The frame is what is actually connected to the balloon and parachute assembly. Within the frame is the actual pressure sphere, which is comprised of molded fiberglass and epoxy. The windows and doors are acrylic, and at the top of the jump, the sphere was pressurized to about the same pressure you’d have at 16,000 feet up. That was to remove the need for Baumgartner to inflate his suit during the ascent.
Rather than using a rocket, Baumgartner traveled to the edge of space the old-fashioned way: by balloon. Inflated by helium, the balloon had a volume of 30 million cubic feet – all while being made from extremely thin polyethylene. Basically, as the Red Bull team describes it, it’s a “40-acre dry cleaner bag.” A dry cleaner bag with polyester reinforced load tape so that it could bear the weight of the capsule – and, of course, Felix.
The high-altitude balloon was manufactured byATA Aerospace, which also provided the personnel and equipment for the launch.
One of the most exhilarating things about Baumgartner’s space jump was the ability to see so many different angles of what was going on, both asphotos and video. To ensure that the cameras would work, the Red Bull Stratos team turned to Flightline Films, which has been provding aerial photography services since 1984. The company’s had extensive work in the upper atmosphere, including work with Virgin Galactic to photograph its spacecraft.
All of the cameras had to be tested in extreme cold and heat, as well as near-vacuum conditions. Specialized filters were applied to compensate for the intense sunlight at the edge of space. Some of the cameras had to be placed in pressurized housings filled with nitrogen gas to ensure they’d continue to operate.
In addition to the 9 cameras on Felix’s person and capsule, some of the images of the flight were also captured by helicopter. Airborne Images was in charge of the chopper, which was equipped with a gyroscopically stabilized HD camera that was manufactured by Cineflex.
All of the great photo and video captured by the cameras wouldn’t have been as exciting if we couldn’t have seen it in real time. To make sure that happened, Red Bull hired Riedel Communications. Riedel provided the video control system for the nine HD cameras in the capsule or on Baumgartner. The system acted like a “digital video router”, which allowed dynamic control of the cameras and used three different video downlinks to ensure constant communication.
On the ground, Riedel set up a decentralized, redundant fiberoptics network to ensure there’d be no loss of signal during the jump. There were over 100 radio receivers on the ground operating on 10 channels, and the video was routed through the 24-node ring network. The fiberoptics ensured fast data transmission and the redundant network setup allowed for smooth, real-time communications.
You can learn more about the technology behind Red Bull’s space jump here. The folks at the Stratos team have done a great job explaining the complicated tech that went into this mission. Below check out our gallery of the historic space jump.