The Right Suit

A new space suit is designed to let a skydiver fall from 120,000 feet. Could it also save astronauts’ lives?

Later this summer, Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian skydiver, plans to exit a fiberglass sphere 120,000 feet above the Earth’s surface and jump. If all goes as expected, he’ll fall for five and a half minutes, reaching a speed of Mach 1 before deploying a parachute that will ease him onto the sands around Roswell, New Mexico, 23 miles below. The only thing protecting Baumgartner from the cold deadness of near space? The air encased in his pressurized space suit. Above 63,000 feet or so, humans need pressurized protection; without it, liquids in the body turn to gas, and in a process called ebullism, the entire body distends. Within 15 seconds, consciousness is lost.

The last time anyone survived a fall from anything close to this height was August 1960, when Joseph Kittinger, then a U.S. Air Force test pilot, hitched a ride in a balloon-propelled open gondola to an altitude of 102,800 feet, then leaped out. For three years, Baumgartner has been training to break Kittinger’s record. Assisting him is a group of aerospace engineers, retired U.S. Navy and Air Force personnel, doctors, physiologists, a corporate sponsor (the Austrian energy-drink manufacturer Red Bull), and Kittinger himself. In March, after more than a year of delays, the team—which goes by the name Red Bull Stratos—successfully completed a test jump from 71,581 feet.

In 1960, Kittinger’s intention was to test how humans might survive in the vanishingly thin air of the stratosphere. The suit he wore was one used by high-altitude pilots, a painfully uncomfortable full-body costume known as a “partial pressure” suit, with rubber tubes called capstans along the arms, legs, and back. As Kittinger rose 19.5 miles above the Earth, the capstans gradually inflated, squeezing his body just tightly enough to prevent ebullism.

Baumgartner will have a more comfortable ride up. Like Kittinger, he’ll be lifted by a balloon (a 30-million-cubic-foot one), but he’ll be sitting in an enclosed capsule filled with pressurized air, his suit inflating only minutes before the jump. And that suit? “Comparing my equipment to what Felix has is like comparing a Model T to a 2020 Ferrari,” Kittinger told me. Baumgartner’s suit, which was designed by space-suit specialists at David Clark Company, has four layers: an innermost comfort liner; a bladder, or gas container, fitted to his body; netting to keep the bladder in place; and an insulating exterior. Whereas Kittinger’s partial-pressure suit merely simulated the pressure of lower altitudes long enough for him to descend to a safer altitude, Baumgartner’s full-pressure suit maintains an internal pressure equivalent to that found at 35,000 feet.

The new suit has much in common with the full-pressure suits the shuttle astronauts wore, but it’s different in one critical and potentially life-saving regard: maneuverability. NASA space suits, which were intended to keep astronauts alive if the shuttle cabin lost pressure while entering or exiting orbit, were designed for sitting. They are extremely hard to move around in when fully pressurized. Jonathan Clark—the Stratos project’s medical director, a former NASA flight surgeon, and the widower of Laurel Clark, one of the astronauts who perished in the Columbia accident in 2003—told me that attempting to maneuver through a bailout hatch in such a suit would be nearly unthinkable.

And this is where Baumgartner’s suit represents such a leap forward. If he’s to have a decent shot at surviving the fall, his suit must be maneuverable. He needs to go from a pencil dive, when he first hops off his capsule’s platform, into a head-down “delta” position, with his arms at his side. If he flubs that hop—if he pushes off with too much force, say—he could tumble into an uncontrolled spin, the force of which could kill him. And so his getup, unlike NASA space suits, which come in 12 standard sizes, is custom-tailored.

In a bespoke suit like this one, maneuvering through the bailout hatch of a compromised spacecraft might be more manageable. Which means that if Baumgartner plummets 120,000 feet, reaches a speed of 700 miles an hour, and survives, the Red Bull Stratos team will have done much more than enter a number in a record book. It will have conceptualized, produced, and tested a pressure suit that just might make it possible for future space travelers—astronauts and civilians alike—to bail out of crippled ships at altitudes and speeds not previously survivable. We used to dream of going to the moon. Could we one day jump from it?