By: Leah Harrower
When most people hear the term “aviation” they commonly think of airplanes and commercial flight. However, aviation has expanded its reach far beyond staying within the stratosphere of Earth. The month of October is unique in the fact that two record breaking jumps happened two years apart, almost to the day.
In 2012 the general public was enraptured with one aspect of aviation that’s not commonly discussed: weather balloons. There are quite a few stories about individuals who have tied massive numbers of helium balloons to lawn chairs in order to take flight, and then there are manned balloons which are slightly more advanced. For instance, on October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner set a new altitude record for parachute jumping. He jumped from a height of 127,851 feet (approximately 23 miles) as part of the Red Bull Stratos project, one of the aims of which was to break the previous parachute jump altitude record. Baumgartner’s accomplishment was broadcast live on the Internet and watched by millions; it captured people’s imaginations.
Baumgartner jumped from inside of the stratosphere down to Earth. To give you an idea of how high up the stratosphere is, it begins at 6.2 miles (approximately 33,000 feet) above sea level and ends at 163,680 feet (approximately 31 miles). After the stratosphere is the mesosphere, then the thermosphere (which is where space stations and satellites orbit), and finally the exosphere. To further put this height into perspective, commercial aircraft fly at an average height of 39,000 feet above sea level.
The balloon Baumgartner jumped from was constructed from high-performance polyethylene, had a capacity of 30 million cubic feet, and was 55 stories tall. The balloon was 10 times larger than that of one of the previous record holders (U.S. Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger, who broke the record in 1960 when he jumped from a height of 102,800 feet (approximately 19 miles)).
Kittinger’s record was short-lived; in May 4, 1961 Victor Prather and Commander Malcolm Ross jumped from an altitude of 113,720 feet (21 miles). Their balloon was constructed by Winzen Research, Inc. of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was also constructed of polyethylene and had a 10 million cubic foot capacity. At the time it was the largest balloon that had ever been successfully launched. These weather balloons are typically used to bring researchers into the stratosphere so they can test new space suits and gather data in order to further manned space explorations. While these jumps are undeniably impressive, they also draw the public’s attention to the progress being made in space exploration.
On October 24, 2014, Baumgartner’s record was surpassed by Alan Eustace, a Senior Vice President at Google, when he jumped from a height of 135,890 feet. Eustace has turned his experience into a company, World View Experience. They want to be able to take people very near to space via balloon. In an interview with Popular Science Eustace
said, “I think this project gave World View the ability to see a different approach to space tourism. And I also think that my team—after watching me go up there—were jealous, and they want to have the same experience themselves.”
To watch Alan Eustace’s TED talk follow this link: https://www.ted.com/talks/alan_eustace_i_leapt_from_the_stratosphere_here_s_how_i_did_it?language=en
To watch Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking jump follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHtvDA0W34I
TIME Magazine: http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/10/15/felix-baumgartners-record-breaking-what-he-did-and-didnt-accomplish/
Red Bull: http://www.redbullstratos.com/technology/high-altitude-balloon/
Patriots Point http://www.patriotspoint.org/news-and-events/world-record-balloon-flight-set-by-navy-at-113739-9-feet/
Popular Science: http://www.popsci.com/moonshot-man-why-googles-alan-eustace-set-new-free-fall-record