You may already know about Joe Kittinger’s jump from a 20-story-tall helium balloon at the edge of space, 19 miles up, in 1960. I blogged on it recently. He reached 714 miles per hour, breaking the sound barrier without a vehicle, before a small stabilizing ‘chute and a later, bigger parachute slowed his fall.
Now a Frenchman named Michel Fournier aims to top the feat. In 1988, two years after the U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on ascent 11 miles up, managers of Europe’s space program selected the paratrooper as one of three people to leap from 25 miles up. Scientists wanted to see whether an ejection higher than Col. Kittinger’s jump is survivable. After doing initial tests with lifelike dummies, Europe abandoned its ambitions for manned spaceflight and scrubbed the jump.
Mr. Fournier wasn’t so easily grounded, and in 1992 he retired to pursue the plunge solo. He has since amassed $12 million in gear — and impoverished himself. He sold his house, antique furniture and gun collection to buy the mothballed European jump equipment and a massive balloon capable of rising higher than planes can fly. He cajoled sponsors to pitch in high-tech gear, including a pressure suit and life-support system that took nearly three years to develop.
As Kittinger says, “Space is hostile”:
Belly-flopping from the edge of space isn’t just an incredibly long parachute ride. At that altitude, conditions quickly turn deadly. Above 40,000 feet, the atmosphere is so thin that unprotected people lose consciousness in around 12 seconds. Even with an air supply, nitrogen bubbles may form in the blood and soft tissue if the jumper hasn’t prepared by inhaling pure oxygen for several hours. If the jumper is unprotected above 50,000 feet or so, saliva boils off the tongue, and body parts begin swelling painfully. Lungs may hemorrhage as they and the skull fill with liquid.
On Col. Kittinger’s ascent to his record leap, his right glove broke, causing his exposed hand to balloon. A Soviet officer died two years later from pressure sickness in a similar attempt when his face mask cracked. An American sky diver died from decompression trying to beat the record in 1966.