Skydiver's feat could influence spacesuit design

Oct 17, 2012 by Marcia Dunn
In this Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 image provided by Red Bull Stratos, pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria jumps out of his capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos. Baumgartner's death-defying jump from a balloon 24 miles above Earth yielded important information about the punishing effects of extreme speed and altitude on the human body - insights that could inform the development of improved spacesuits, new training procedures and emergency medical treatment. (AP Photo/Red Bull Stratos)

Now that the dust has settled in the New Mexico desert where supersonic skydiver "Fearless Felix" Baumgartner landed safely on his feet, researchers are exhilarated over the possibility his feat could someday help save the lives of pilots and space travelers in a disaster.

Baumgartner's death-defying jump Sunday from a balloon 24 miles (38.62 kilometers) above Earth yielded a wealth of information about the punishing effects of extreme speed and altitude on the human body—insights that could inform the development of improved spacesuits, new training procedures and emergency medical treatment.

A NASA engineer who specializes in astronaut escape systems said Baumgartner's mission "gives us a good foundation" for improving the odds of survival for professional astronauts, space tourists and high-altitude pilots and passengers.

"What I would hope is that, perhaps, this is just the first step of many, many advancements to come" in emergency bailouts, said Dustin Gohmert, who heads NASA's crew survival engineering office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In an interview after Baumgartner became the first skydiver to break the speed of sound, Gohmert noted that researchers have spent decades working on self-contained space escape systems, with no significant advances since Joe Kittinger in 1960 jumped from 19.5 miles (31.38 kilometers) up and reached 614 mph (988 kph), records that stood until Sunday.

Baumgartner's feat was sponsored by energy drink maker Red Bull, and NASA had no role. But Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who lost his wife, Laurel, in the accident and dedicated himself to improving crew escape systems, was in charge of Baumgartner's medical team.

And he was thrilled at how much was learned.

By going well beyond Mach 1, or the speed of sound, Baumgartner provided even more data than anticipated. Wearing a pressurized suit and helmet, Baumgartner accelerated to an astonishing 834 mph (1,342 kph) and was supersonic longer than expected. The speed of sound at that altitude is close to 700 mph (1,126 kph).

"It was Mach 1.24, which is really huge. I mean, that's a much higher level than we'd ever anticipated, so we learned a lot by going faster and higher," said Clark, who teaches at the Baylor College School of Medicine.

Clark said his team is still analyzing all the medical data—heart rate, blood pressure and the like—collected from sensors on Baumgartner's body.

In this Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 photo provided by Red Bull Stratos, Pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria celebrates after successfully completing the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos in Roswell, N.M. Baumgartner's death-defying jump from a balloon 24 miles above Earth yielded important information about the punishing effects of extreme speed and altitude on the human body - insights that could inform the development of improved spacesuits, new training procedures and emergency medical treatment. (AP Photo/Red Bull Stratos, Balazs Gardi)

During his descent through the stratosphere, Baumgartner went into an out-of-control spin for about 40 seconds, experiencing around 2.5 G's, or 2.5 times the force of gravity, before stabilizing himself.

Baumgartner's technique for righting himself may prove useful for companies like Virgin Galactic that are developing spacecraft that will take tourists up into space and right back down. These enterprises will need to have some sort of emergency escape plan.

NASA's next-generation spaceship, the Orion vehicle intended for deep-space exploration, will parachute home like the old-style Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules. The lessons learned from Baumgartner's effort probably won't apply directly to the Orion design, since it will be safer for astronauts to remain in the vessel all the way back to Earth, Gohmert said.

As for the now-ended shuttle program, Columbia was traveling too high and too fast during its 2003 descent for a Baumgartner-style exit to have helped the seven astronauts. The spaceship broke apart about 40 miles (64 kilometers) up while traveling more than Mach 17, unleashing forces that tore the crew members' bodies apart.

In the 1986 Challenger disaster, the crew capsule shot out of the fireball that erupted during liftoff, but there are too many unknowns to say whether any lessons from Baumgartner's feat might have applied to that tragedy, Gohmert said.

After each accident, NASA improved its efforts to protect crews in an emergency. But by the time the 30-year shuttle program shut down last year, the window for escape was still limited to below about 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) and less than 230 mph (370 kph).

Baumgartner's pressurized suit—a close cousin of the orange suits used by shuttle astronauts and the suits worn by high-altitude U-2 spy pilots—was designed for use in a standing, free-falling position, while conventional spacesuits are made primarily for sitting. By all accounts, the new suit performed well.

"I think all of us here in our lab specifically who have dealt with the shuttle suits have looked at this in wonder and amazement, and really appreciated what they did," Gohmert said. "And that efficiency that they brought it forth with is also a model for us to learn from as well."

The suit was made by the David Clark Co. of Worcester, Massachusetts.

"Perhaps in the future, someone might say, 'We want people to be in suits, some type of commercial space thing. We want them to be able to float around better and not in a seated position,'" Dan McCarter, a program manager at the company, said Wednesday.

"Now we know a little more on how to reposition arms and legs on the suit. Of course, we're always doing research and development. ... New knee joints, new elbow joints, lighter hardware. It's nonstop. We are currently working on the next-generation of suit right now for NASA and the Air Force."

The suit Baumgartner used was previously certified to 100,000 feet (30,480 meters). "Well, we pretty much say now it's certified to 128,000 feet," or 39,014 meters, McCarter said.

An uncorrected spin could have caused Baumgartner to black out and suffer a deadly stroke. Baumgartner said afterward that he could feel pressure building in his head during the spin, but did not come close to passing out.

His recovery crew had specialized equipment on hand to treat him for a multitude of medical problems he might have suffered. Clark and his team spent years refining the emergency treatments and the mobile gear required. In the end, none of it was needed.

"I tell you, we had a lot of medical support because we were very concerned," Clark said. "We had to be ready for everything."

Explore further: SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

4.7 /5 (13 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Skydiver aims for supersonic plunge on Oct. 8

Sep 25, 2012

(AP)—The countdown is on for skydiver Felix Baumgartner. In just two weeks, the Austrian parachutist will attempt to go supersonic when he jumps from a record altitude of 23 miles (37 kilometers) over the ...

Skydiver aims to break sound barrier in free fall

Oct 01, 2012

His blood could boil. His lungs could overinflate. The vessels in his brain could burst. His eyes could hemorrhage. And, yes, he could break his neck while jumping from a mind-boggling altitude of 23 miles (37 kilometers).

Skydiver cancels try at supersonic jump

Oct 09, 2012

Extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner canceled his planned death-defying 23-mile (37.01-kilometer) free fall Tuesday because of high winds, the second time this week he was forced to postpone his quest to be ...

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Dec 19, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

Dec 19, 2014

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

Video: Flying over Becquerel

Dec 19, 2014

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

Spinning up a dust devil on Mars

Dec 19, 2014

Spinning up a dust devil in the thin air of Mars requires a stronger updraft than is needed to create a similar vortex on Earth, according to research at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

User comments : 15

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

javjav
5 / 5 (3) Oct 17, 2012
This kind of suits could save lives during the initial trip to space, like in the Challenger disaster. But not for the return flight, as astronauts on re-entry can never survive without a heat shield.

However, NASA is developing an inflatable heat shield, maybe they could create an unipersonal version of it. It is inflatable, so it would provide pressure and breathable air inside it, and it could transmit some heat for a comfortable interior. Finally it could be opened and rotated 180º to morph into parachute shape. In this way no additional suit or parachute would be needed, it could really substitute that heavy suit. (I don't suggest to put a naked astronaut inside, just that it could be made weight efficient)
http://www.nasa.g...nch.html
CapitalismPrevails
3 / 5 (4) Oct 17, 2012
javjay, that sound interesting but how would astronauts eject safely during re-entry? They're already traveling fast enough to scorch the air. If a heat shield problem happens, like with Columbia, i'd assume things would transpire to fast for a any counter measure to react effectively.
PhotonX
5 / 5 (1) Oct 17, 2012
Is the curvature of the planet accurate in the picture, or is there lens distortion? I'll never be able to afford an orbital or even suborbital flight, but I might be willing to spring for a balloon trip if the scenery is this impressive and the cost not prohibitive.
javjav
5 / 5 (2) Oct 17, 2012
javjay, that sound interesting but how would astronauts eject safely during re-entry?

Not trivial, but maybe not impossible. In the Columbia particular case they had some time to prepare something like that (sensors where announcing critical status on the left wing more than a minute before the structural failure, they commander even spoke with the mission control center about it...), enough time to eject astronauts trough the cargo bay if it were automatized. Given the angle of attack of the shuttle it would protect them on the cargo bay while inflating their heat shields, eject the cargo bay doors and start floating to get into aerodynamic position with the help of a cable or small parachute, while still protected in the shuttle shadow. Speed and heat was very high, but air pressure was very low, they could have an opportunity.

PhotonX, there is huge lens distortion on that pictures. At 39km you can see a bit of earth curvature, but much less than in the pictures
Frostiken
3 / 5 (4) Oct 17, 2012
Is the curvature of the planet accurate in the picture, or is there lens distortion?

Wide-angle lens distortion. You can see the earth's curvature up there, but it's very slight.

Figure that on a standard globe, Felix was only about a millimeter off the surface, to give you an idea.
Matt_J_
5 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2012
They actually mentioned during the broadcast that that camera had a fish eye lens that gave the earth more of a curve than there actually was. It's good to hear that valuable science was done rather than just a publicity for a, as Seth Meyers put it, salty sewer water company (I've actually never tried one).
Husky
5 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2012
i could see such a suit fitted with a few small hydrogenperoxide thrusters to at least control the spin.
javjav
5 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2012
i could see such a suit fitted with a few small hydrogenperoxide thrusters to at least control the spin.


Add a gyroscope..
IronhorseA
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2012
i could see such a suit fitted with a few small hydrogenperoxide thrusters to at least control the spin.


Add a gyroscope..


And a digital control system for beginners ;P
PhotonX
not rated yet Oct 18, 2012
Thanks everyone for helping me see the curvature problem. I guess I was being lazy not to figure out the math.
GSwift7
1 / 5 (1) Oct 19, 2012
i could see such a suit fitted with a few small hydrogenperoxide thrusters to at least control the spin.

Add a gyroscope..


If they weren't trying to break the speed record, there wouldn't have been any problem. There's no practical reason for the long free-fall. In an emergency situation, the person would have a small drag parachute on a short tether to get them aligned, and as soon as they are stable, the main chute would deploy. The dangerous speeds he reached are what caused him to lose control. A person in an emergency wouldn't get moving that fast. Just like when a pilot ejects from a fighter aircraft, the chute deploys as soon as they are clear.

As for the inflatable heat shield, you don't get inside them. You inflate it in front of the spacecraft. They will use nitrogen to inflate them because the inside of the inflateable heat shield will get so hot that they can't use air.
ForFreeMinds
1 / 5 (2) Oct 19, 2012
I briefly lo0ked but didn't find the re-entry speed for Virgin Galactic's spaceship. It's much slower, so might be slow enough to support ejecting the astronauts for free fall and parachuting to safety upon re-entry.
fmfbrestel
not rated yet Oct 20, 2012
A person in an emergency wouldn't get moving that fast.


Not true. From that height nothing *(except for some sort of thruster for propulsion) would have prevented the high speeds he attained. There was no appreciable atmosphere to interact with to slow him down. A drogue chute could have just wrapped around and killed him. The only way to get to the atmosphere is through free fall.
italba
3 / 5 (2) Oct 21, 2012
@fmfbrestel: If it's true what you wrote, he couldn't climb up there with a balloon, don't you think so?
GSwift7
1 / 5 (2) Oct 23, 2012
@fmfbrestel: If it's true what you wrote, he couldn't climb up there with a balloon, don't you think so?


He also wouldn't have gotten into that spin without enough air to cause the spin.

Like I said, unless you are TRYING to break the freefall speed record, there's no reason to reach that speed. That was totally avoidable.

An emergency escape system would never be designed to expose people to that kind of danger.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.