Next-gen space suit revealed for Red Bull Stratos mission
History has been made as Red Bull Stratos unveiled the first space suit ever to be produced by David Clark Company for a non-governmental space program. The Red Bull Stratos science team has also revealed the pressure helmet, which with the suit will serve as Felix Baumgartner's sole life-support system when he steps off his capsule at 120,000 feet to attempt a record-breaking freefall from the edge of space.
This next-generation gear was manufactured by Massachusetts-based David Clark Company Incorporated, which has pioneered air and space crew protective equipment since 1941, including launch entry suits for Space Shuttle astronauts and the iconic suit that United States Air Force Colonel (Ret.) Joe Kittinger wore on his historic Excelsior III jump in 1960.
In the hostile stratospheric environment Felix plans to traverse, hazards include temperatures as cold as minus 56 degrees Celsius; an environment with too little oxygen to sustain human life; and air pressure so low that decompression sickness and ebullism -- a condition in which blood "boils" with life-threatening vapor bubbles -- are pervasive dangers.
During his ascent beneath a 30-million-cubic-foot polyethylene balloon filled with helium, Felix will depend on a sealed capsule to provide a pressurized environment; but once he depressurizes the vessel and opens the door to step off, his full-pressure suit and helmet -- what engineers call a "Pilot Protective Assembly," or PPA -- will be his only life-support system until he reaches the safety of the lower atmosphere.
By attempting to break the speed of sound in freefall, Felix will be trailblazing a velocity that future astronauts and aviators may have to face: although Felix will need to optimize his flight posture to achieve Mach 1, astronauts bailing out from significantly higher altitudes would likely attain supersonic speed involuntarily. Members of the Red Bull Stratos science team expect that the rigidity and protection of a full-pressure suit is necessary to provide benefits at such unprecedented speed, but effectively utilizing the protective assembly will also present challenges.
Although a full-pressure suit is essential for survival at high altitudes, such "space" suits have never been qualified for the kind of controlled freefall that Felix Baumgartner must execute to safely return to Earth from the edge of space. The challenges include:
Restricted mobility: Skydivers are trained to use their bodies to control freefall, making subtle midair positioning adjustments to significantly affect flight. Control is especially critical at high altitude, where rapid spinning is a potentially lethal possibility. The pressurized suit makes some physical adjustments difficult and others impossible.
Restricted vision: The helmet that protects Felix's head also restricts his vision, a challenge that can be exacerbated if the atmospheric conditions, or perspiration, cause fogging or icing. If Felix can't see, he won't be able to launch the jump.