All About Stratosphere Jumps

The first skydive was executed by André-Jacques Garnerin, the guy who invented the parachute, on October 22, 1797. Since then, parachuting has evolved in technique and equipment to the thrilling sport it is today. But while skydiving has become a safe and well-regulated activity, there are still those always looking to push the boundaries of human capabilities.

Legends like Joseph Kittinger and Felix Baumgartner captivated our imaginations by jumping from heights well into the second layer of the atmosphere. These jumps pushed the limits of their own physical endurance and the ingenuity of the engineers who worked with them to successfully skydiving from space.

A Space Jump Close to Home

If you haven’t already, see the outstanding video of Felix Baumgartner’s stratosphere jump in 2012, also known as the Red Bull Space Jump. His fall reached a speed of 843.6 mph (Mach 1.25), making him the first person to break the sound barrier without any sort of engine power.

Here at Skydive Taft, we’re a major skydiving training center in Southern California, and Felix Baumgartner was trained at our dropzone. Read on to learn more about skydiving from the stratosphere.

The Skydiving Altitude Record

Most recently, Google executive Alan Eustace set the current world skydiving height record and longest freefall jump when he jumped from 135,908 feet and stayed in freefall for 123,334 feet. But how are these jumps accomplished? And will skydiving from space become a new thrill everyone has access to? Let’s take a look at the history of stratosphere jumps and the future of the sport.

History

The beginnings of skydiving from space are much earlier than you might think. Here’s a timeline of events:

  • 1959 – 1st stratospheric jump, completed by Joseph Kittinger, former Air Force colonel and command pilot.
  • 1960 – Record set for the longest skydive, again by Kittinger, from 102,800 feet. (not recognized as free-fall due to the use of a drogue parachute)
  • 1962 – Yevgeni Nikolayevich Andreyev set an official record for the longest-distance free-fall parachute jump on 1 November 1962, which the Guinness Book of Records put at 24,500 meters (80,380 feet)
  • 2012 – Felix Baumgartner broke Kittinger’s highest altitude and Andreyev’s longest free fall records, when on October 14 he jumped from over 128,000 ft (39 km).
  • 2014 – Alan Eustace set the current world skydiving height record (135,908 feet) and longest free fall jump (123,334 feet).

But, What Exactly is the Stratosphere?

To sufficiently describe the stratosphere, we need to cover the structure of the earth’s atmosphere in general terms. The earth’s atmosphere is the layer of gases that surrounds the planet. The atmosphere consists of five primary layers:

  • Troposphere: 0 to 12 km (0 to 7 miles)
  • Stratosphere: 12 to 50 km (7 to 31 miles)
  • Mesosphere: 50 to 80 km (31 to 50 miles)
  • Thermosphere: 80 to 700 km (50 to 440 miles)
  • Exosphere: 700 to 10,000 km (440 to 6,200 miles)

The majority of skydiving as it’s known to the general public is conducted in the troposphere, at or below 20,000 ft. The higher the altitude, the lower the air density and the more inhospitable the environment becomes to human life. This is why life preserving equipment such as breathing devices are needed at higher altitudes. So, as you can imagine, stratosphere jumps require incredible planning, engineering, and attention to detail.

How Do You Get To the Stratosphere?

By now you’re probably wondering how these daredevils get up to jump height. Those altitudes are certainly far beyond the service ceiling of a Beech 99. Can ANY airplane even fly that high? Were they blasted into the stratosphere on a rocket ship? The highest military air-breathing engine airplane was the SR-71, and even it had a ceiling of about 90,000 ft. So, how do these record-breaking jumpers get up there?

In the Project Excelsior, for which he is best known, Joseph Kittinger ascended to jump altitudes in a helium balloon. Joseph Kittinger, Felix Baumgartner, and Alan Eustace all ascended to stratosphere jump altitudes in gas balloons. In many cases, these skydivers were enclosed in a capsule until jump altitude was reached, at which point he would exit the capsule and jump.

The Challenges of Skydiving From Space

With temperatures approaching -60℃ and air density insufficient for human breathing, skydiving from this layer of the atmosphere requires equipping the jumper with life support systems. And even so, precautions must be taken so these systems themselves can withstand the harsh environment. The skydiver must also learn how to control his or her body while moving at extremely high speeds, often in excess of the speed of sound.

Stratosphere jump attempts have lead to severe injuries and even death for past skydivers. Between 1965 and 1966, Nick Piantanida made a series of unsuccessful jumps which concluded in the jump in which his face mask depressurized and resulted in severe brain damage from which he never recovered. Skydiver Pyotr Dolgov died when he struck his helmet as he exited the gondola, cracking the visor and causing depressurization. Videos of one of Felix Baumgartner’s jumps show him spinning out of control at extremely high rotations per minute. This situation could have been fatal if he hadn’t regained control.

What Kind of Gear Do You Need?

Stratosphere jumps are no small endeavors, and require highly sophisticated gear to be successful. At a minimum, the skydiver must wear:

  • A jumpsuit with stability and control devices.
  • A parachute system which may include a drogue parachute.
  • A life support system that provides oxygen and routes carbon dioxide away from the respiratory system.
  • An environmental system to route moisture away from the head bubble to prevent freezing and visibility issues.

Scientific Advancement

Aside from the thrill of soaring through the air at incredible speeds, stratosphere jumps can serve as an amazing tool for scientific development in many fields. NASA has used data gathered from research projects to explore alternate re-entry options for astronauts in the earth’s orbit. It’s safe to say that human curiosity will continue to push the boundaries of current knowledge about stratosphere jumps and usher in new technological developments that will serve practical and recreational purposes alike. For now, space skydiving is still out of reach for the casual skydiver, so you’ll have to continue living vicariously through the daredevils who walk among us.

The Skydive Taft Experience

The team at Skydive Taft is passionate about helping anyone discover the wonders of skydiving in the safest and most professional environment. Our dropzone features almost year-round jumping weather and has been consistently recognized as one of the best mid-size dropzones in the country by Blue Skies magazine. Once you’ve experienced Skydive Taft’s warm community and friendly vibes, you won’t want to go anywhere else. Book your next adventure with us today!

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