On October 24, 2014, Alan Eustace, a 57-year-old former senior vice president at Google, disengaged from a balloon floating 25 miles in the sky. Fifteen minutes later, he landed safely in the desert of New Mexico, having fallen faster than the speed of sound. His feat broke the world record for highest-altitude jump, which had been set only two years prior by Felix Baumgartner.
“First you have to understand, I’m an engineer, a pilot and a sky diver,” said Eustace recently in an interview about the film 14 Minutes from Earth, which follows his record-breaking jump and premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival. He was providing the backdrop before launching into his main motivation for undertaking the jump: solving the problem. When Felix Baumgartner jumped, as part of a heavily publicized event, he said, “I know the whole world is watching,” before leaping from the capsule. By contrast, when Eustace jumped, from a height 7,790 feet higher than Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump, he only invited one member of the press.
Besides being completed in secret, the jump was also deceptively simple. Eustace rose 25 miles using a balloon filled with 35,000 cubic feet of helium, wearing a spacesuit specially designed for the trip. No capsules, no door hatch. Just a balloon and a spacesuit. But simple didn’t equate to easy. During the testing phase, the team encountered problems that seemed insurmountable. They had to keep Eustace alive over a wide range of temperatures and pressures, while also giving him the maneuverability to steer himself and land safely. (During the first major test jump, he couldn’t even pull his parachute cord.) Throughout all, he balanced human exploration of what’s above with his responsibility to his wife and child on the ground, who were new to living with a temporary daredevil.
Only now, with the world premiere of 14 Minutes from Earth, a television special, will a wide audience know of his success. We spoke with Eustace about his feat, and what it means for the progression of science and man’s reach into the cosmos.
Q: What motivated you in 2011 to decide to pursue this?
Alan Eustace (AE): It was a problem that I couldn’t let go of… the idea of being in the stratosphere was interesting to me. I really liked having to build the scuba-diving suit of the sky. We had a really interesting take to make it a lot safer and faster, with bigger heights and smaller balloons. It was the problem that sucked me in, and then later on the team and their commitment kept me going.
Q: What’s the value in this kind of pursuit, of reaching into the stratosphere?
AE: First, it’s a place that no one has spent any time on. And it’s actually one of Earth’s more beautiful places. So there’s a scenic value. Scientifically, the next generation of aircrafts that reach supersonic speeds will be traveling in the stratosphere [where air resistance is lower]. One of the drivers for the jump was to show how we could escape from vehicles in the stratosphere — both of the space shuttle accidents happened at altitudes lower than where I was. And the technical problems: How to control spins as you go through the stratosphere? How to pressurize and heat a suit? People thought weather only mattered in the troposphere [closest to Earth]. But now people believe that the stratosphere has an impact on the weathering models. The stratosphere will get more and more accessible over the next decade. This was just the early research.
Q: A year after you decided on this project, Felix had his record-breaking jump. How did this impact you?
AE: Two things. It was both positive and negative in some ways. The positive was that we saw it was possible to fall that high and that fast. He also paved the way for FAA approval. He went way higher than we expected him to go. We assumed around 105,000 feet and he went 128,000. It’s very difficult the higher you go. We knew we were a lot lighter. He had a 3,200-pound capsule. [Ours] was only 605 pounds. And they had a really nice scientific briefing on their effort. Our whole team went to L.A. [for the conference] and the Red Bull team was really open about what went well what didn’t. Even though we took completely different engineering approaches, some tidbits were very important for validating our decisions.
Q: You financed this with your own money. Why?
AE: We thought our approach would be much cheaper… it was simpler in lots of ways. And we had advantages [by not accepting sponsorship]. Instead of spending 70-80 percent of our time fundraising, we could focus on engineering. Also, I had 13 years at Google, so I had money apply to this. And sometimes, depending on the sponsor, you might make a decision that isn’t the best one. For example, [after a test jump] we had a host of problems and it took us a year to be back in the same position. If there was a sponsor, we’d have to beg for that money and maybe compromise. We took the time to do it right. Also, sponsors are interested in publicity, so the event itself takes on a life of its own. We only had one press person there. If you have 500 people and the wind is more than the max allowable, you feel pressure. With one person there, if it’s not working, we just won’t go. Also you get to celebrate with the 20-30 people involved, and just those people.
Q: You couldn’t open the parachute during a test jump. This seems like a big oversight. Did you ever lose confidence or doubt the attempt?
AE: There were a lot of problems. I turned during the fall, broke an antenna, couldn’t pull my parachute, and then when it did open, I couldn’t reach the steering toggles and I couldn’t decompress the suit. A lot of things to fix. Lots of times in the project we thought problems were insurmountable, that we had gone through all the ways… in those times you’re really counting on the team. Someone to come up with another solution. It’s not that you solved the problem, but that you realized the paths that you have not yet explored.
Q: It took you about two hours to rise to 25 miles up. What was going through your mind?
AE: Two hours, seven minutes. You have to remember, we’d already done five airplane and two balloon jumps. We’d done a 105,000-foot jump. I knew the anti-spin worked. I knew how to control myself. I knew the parachutes worked exceptionally well. It was the most relaxing of the three jumps. I had complete confidence.
[During the ascent,] specifically, I’m doing three things. One: I’m relaxing. More relaxed means less oxygen. I’m doing nothing formal, but easy breathing, closing my eyes and relaxing. Two: I was going through both normal and emergency procedures. What would I do if it the balloon shattered right now? Can I use main parachute? Can I use my reserve? Can I cut away immediately and open immediately? I was going over Mach 1, which I hadn’t done in the testing, so I was telling myself to trust the system. If I start turning what do I do? The movements in the suit are exactly the opposite of normal skydiving. If you are turning to the left, normally you would put out your left hand, but in this system it was exactly the opposite. Three: The vast majority of the time I was just enjoying the view. I told the ground team I couldn’t possibly explain how beautiful it was. The darkness of space. The curvature of the Earth. All these different beautiful layers way above the clouds.
Q: How was the view?
AE: First thing I noticed is that I couldn’t see the stars because of the brightness of the Earth. So bright that your eyes adjust to deal with the Earth, so even though it’s pitch black you can’t see the stars. Second thing is, I was trying to see how far away I could see. I could see the rocky mountains and the Gulf of Mexico, but at that particular altitude the atmosphere is blurring out the edges.
Q: Space station’s orbit roughly 8 to 10 times higher than your world record jump. What new scientific challenges are there for getting a person up there by balloon in Mesosphere and Thermosphere? Where’s the limit for this sort of pursuit?
AE: Well, balloons are pretty limited… you can get to 145,000 or 150,000 feet, but after that, you have to switch to rockets. How high could you go — ignoring how you got up there — and do a descent? Pretty certain that 200,000 or 250,000 feet is possible before the thermal changes would get you. There are many records to be broken.
Q: What does traveling 822 mph feel like?
AE: It’s hard to explain. On the ground, the faster you go the more wind there is. So we so associate speed with wind. This is exactly the opposite during the jump. You accelerate because there is no atmosphere, so when you hit 822 per hour, it’s still silent. When you hear the wind you are actually slowing down. So it takes 31 or 33 seconds to reach the speed of sound and 51 seconds for 822 mph. Then you hear the wind and slow down to [eventually] 120 mph.
Q: You brought a football-stadium-sized balloon into space. What are the laws regarding this as a private citizen?
AE: There were three regulatory environments, with three sets of rules, all from the FAA. The first is for the manned balloon, which is the first set as you go up. That covers the licenses and communication and equipment. Then skydiving regulations for when you leave the balloon, and then unmanned balloon regulations for the balloon itself. We had to safely bring the balloon down in three different environments. We had a balloon consultant for this: he’s worked with FAA on other attempts. He is a guru when it comes to working with the FAA. They cleared 15 miles of vertical airspace for us, rerouting airliners.
Q: Felix’s jump was a highly publicized Red Bull campaign, but you remained under the radar. What was the reaction when you asked press and others to join for the record-breaking attempt?
AE: Red Bull was so heavily publicized. [For our jump] The New York Times only sent [John Markoff] out for two trips. One trip he interviewed the team. And then the second was on Sunday, for the launch, and he opted not to take the trip. Instead he came out the following Thursday and luckily that was the successful one. John Markoff had the feeling!
The reason I picked him was because he’s a science and tech writer, and therefore he had an instant rapport with the team. When someone introduces me: “Here’s the guy with the highest skydiving record,” everyone responds with “Are you Felix?” [Red Bull] did such an amazing job. Forever that image of him stepping off will be imbedded in the minds of many people. Credit to that organization.
But the communities I spend a lot of time with — pilot, skydiving — are more likely to have read about it and understand the subtleties of the decisions we made. I’d like to have the team recognized for ingenuity. How they solved the issues, those kind of things that I get so excited about. No marquees anywhere. That wasn’t what we were going for. I’m so happy about Tribeca, because we did the documentary with the tiny crew and more broadly people can see it. It brings out the relationship between family and technology. That will resonate.
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