Plans call for Felix Baumgartner to be alone when he attempts to set a new world record for high-altitude skydiving, leaping from a huge helium balloon at 120,000 feet and then plunging back to Earth at supersonic speeds.
But in the long run-up to the daredevil stunt--now scheduled to take place over Roswell, N.M. early on Tuesday, Oct. 9--the Austrian parachutist has had lots of company.
In fact, Baumgartner is just the most visible member of a team operating under the Red Bull Stratos moniker.
Who are 'Fearless Felix's" teammates? The headliner is Joe Kittinger, a retired Air Force colonel who currently holds the record for highest parachute jump (102,800 feet, set on Aug. 16, 1960). In addition, the team includes designers, engineers, a medical doctor, and a weather expert.
And then there's Luke Aikins, a professional skydiver with more than 16,000 jumps under his belt. Exactly what does Aikins do in his role as the team's "skydiving consultant?" Here's what the Red Bull Stratos website says:
Whether he's suggesting a new parachute configuration, innovating drogue deployment or determining optimal flight postures, Luke is the test subject for the mission team, willingly throwing himself into worst-case scenarios. He also works one-on-one with Felix during intensive airborne training sessions... Luke's efforts behind the scenes give Felix time to focus on preparations such as pressure-suit fittings and training with capsule instrumentation. In evaluating aspects such as how the position of an oxygen canister or camera will affect Felix's center of gravity, and in skydiving with Felix to assess his technique.
In an effort to gain a better understanding of his role in the stunt--as well as of some of the specific challenges facing Baumgartner and the team--HuffPost Science emailed Aikins a set of detailed questions. Here are his replies, with minor edits:
- What's been the biggest challenge in preparing for the jump? Weather and communication between all the different teams and people involved in this project.
- What's the jump's most dangerous aspect--your biggest fear? Breaking the speed of sound without a hard shell around you.
- What will it be like for Baumgartner during the jump? First off he will have to ride out the first 30 seconds of freefall where the air is thin and he will not have much control. In my opinion it will be a wild 30 seconds. The second he gets control he will need to assume the head-down "delta" track position to reach his maximum velocity, hopefully breaking the speed of sound. After about one minute of freefall the air will start to get thicker and start slowing him down. At that point he should just enjoy the ride for the next 4-5 minutes until he opens his parachute at approx 5,000 feet above the ground. Then he must pick a nice landing area and land into the wind for the best landing.
- Are you concerned that Baumgartner might spin violently during the freefall, as Kittinger did during his record-setting jump? I am not. I do believe that he will be in a slow tumble for the first 30 seconds due to the lack of air density--the air is so thin for the first 30 seconds that he will be in a vacuum where a feather will fall at the same speed. In my opinion, if there is not enough air to control yourself, then there is not enough air to cause you to spin violently. When Joe jumped in 1960, Joe had 30 jumps and we did not know very much about human flight. Now in 2012 Felix has over 3,000 jumps and we can fly our bodies and do almost anything you can think of during freefall. As a backup I have helped develop a drogue (stabilization) chute and an automatic drogue deployment device. If needed Felix can open manually, or if he is unconscious the device will deploy the drogue. The drogue should slow his rotation and help him regain control.
- Why 120,000 feet? 120,000 feet is an estimate based on the capsule's weight and the size of the balloon. You could go higher with less weight or a bigger balloon. But this balloon is already almost 600-feet tall from the base of the capsule to the top of the balloon. If you cut this balloon open and laid it out, it would cover 44 acres.
- What happens to the gondola after Baumgartner jumps out? After Felix jumps and is safely on the ground, Mission Control sends a signal to the capsule that cuts the balloon away, and the capsule falls under a partially open, round parachute until it descends to 20K where the parachute will open all the way to slow the capsule's descent to the ground. The balloon is torn in half when the capsule is released, and it drifts down and lands in the desert to be collected by the capsule recovery team.
- What do you think is most interesting aspect of the jump? When I first started on this project I thought, "What is the big deal? Just throw some money at it and go jump." After 3.5 years on it, I now understand why it is one of the longest-standing aviation records in history. To do this and do it safely takes a huge team, a great mentor like Kittinger and a little luck.
- What do you hope people learn from the jump, scientifically speaking? That our only limit is what we can dream up and that it is possible for a man or a woman to safely exit a damaged spacecraft at extreme altitude.