Breaking the Sound Barrier with your Face and a Pressure Suit

This weekend, “Fearless Felix,” (or Felix Baumgartner, whichever you prefer), completed his world-record high altitude jump, skydiving from a height of 128,097 feet.  His estimated top speed was over 800 mph. The speed of sound, by comparison, is approximately 600 mph, depending on atmospheric conditions.

The video of his jump, which took over 9 minutes, can be seen here:

The mission was sponsored by Red Bull (who else would sponsor this?), and here is a link to their site:

I just spent the past week in New Mexico (coincidentally, the same state where Felix landed) for the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque.  During that time, I was busy performing demonstrations on human survival at high altitudes, using a vacuum chamber, marshmallow Peeps, and cups of water.  The demonstration goes along with a NASA curriculum I wrote in conjunction with NASA Aeronautics’ new book, “Dressing for Altitude,” which is a history book about pressure suits (much like what Felix wore for his jump).  In fact, the pressure suit NASA uses for its’ high altitude exhibit, is the yellow suit Felix is seen wearing here during training earlier this year:

“Dressing for Altitude,” by the way, is available as a free download (PDF or virtually any kind of e-book you can imagine):

Pressure suits all work pretty much the same way: pressure is exerted on your body (much like a blood pressure cuff), which keeps the water in your body–including your blood–from boiling, and the air in your body from expanding outward until it escapes.  The helmet provides oxygen for you to breathe, and the suit also provides thermal protection.  At 128,000 feet, there is basically no air pressure and virtually no air.  Without air to breathe and a pressure suit to keep the air in your body and your blood from boiling, you would have about 4-6 seconds of usable consciousness.  The water in your body would begin to boil within about 15 seconds, and if you weren’t rescued within 90 seconds, you wouldn’t survive.  To give an idea of how high 128,000 feet is, large commercial airplanes fly between about 34,000-42,000 feet, and the U-2 and NASA’s ER-2 fly no higher than 80,000 feet.

The last person to hold the record for the highest jump was Col. Joe Kittinger, and he made his record-setting jump in 1960 from just over 102,000 feet.  He helped as a consultant for the Stratos mission. (Here is a picture of Kittinger’s jump)

During my demonstration of pressure suits, and within the curriculum I wrote, I tell the story of Kittinger and his missing glove.  While ascending for his jump, Kittinger lost one of his gloves.  Knowing the jump would be canceled if anyone knew, he didn’t tell anyone and completed the jump anyway.  As he was ascending without pressure on his hand, his hand started to expand (that would happen to your entire body without a pressure suit).  It swelled up, he jumped, and within a few hours, his hand was back to normal size.  If it had been his entire body that swelled, the air would have been pulled from his body, leaving the inside of his body shriveled after he returned to earth and earth’s air pressure was once again pushing on him.  See the pics below of the marshmallow Peeps during a pressure demonstration:

Air pressure is a crazy thing, and I don’t know what is crazier, the science behind air pressure, or those who jump at altitudes like this.  However, it’s an exciting story, and it’s fun to watch.  Congratulations Felix!


~ by alanotte on October 15, 2012.

3 Responses to “Breaking the Sound Barrier with your Face and a Pressure Suit”

  1. Hi April, This is so awesome!! Dad and I have been following Felix and we are so excited on the outcome!! You wrote an awesome article pertaining to Felix and also your trip to New Mexico!! I forwarded this article to Cody, Cindy, Matt and Garry. I know they will love it.!! We love you very much. Love, Dad & Mom XOXO

  2. Hi April…this is Cindy. Your article was great. I’ve been hearing about this guy on the news. What I can’t get over is that his parachute wasn’t all that big! Isn’t that crazy?? And he landed so gracefully. Your marshmellow peep pictures were educational and funny. 🙂 Love hearing about what you’re doing. You have a very fascinating job and to be in the thick of things with NASA and cutting space technology. So fun. Very cool that you were in NM for the hot air balloon stuff. Did you get to go up in one? Look forward to reading more of your adventures. Take care. Love, Cindy

    • Hi Cindy,
      I’m glad you like the article and these posts…working at NASA is great! I’ll be adding some more stuff from California when I help with the celebration of the space shuttle Endeavor later this week. It’s great to hear from you!

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