Inside the tech-crammed capsule keeping Felix Baumgartner alive as he ascends to his Red Bull Stratos mission.
The heart of Red Bull Stratos can be found in Lancaster, California, a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles in the high desert. Here, near the Edwards Air Force Base, is where the aeronautics firm Sage Cheshire is based. Art Thompson and his small team of specialists are working on a mission testing the physical and psychological boundaries of mankind at the edge of space.
With its experienced Austrian BASE jumper, a balloon the size of a 79-storey building and an ascent of 36km, Red Bull Stratos is one of the more ambitious space ventures in recent history. Crucial to the success of the project is the capsule Thompson and his team have designed to take Felix Baumgartner high enough for his record-breaking jump from the stratosphere. His protection against a world without air, the capsule crams high tech into a few square metres in a way only the military and aerospace industries can match. The Red Bulletin got an exclusive first look at Baumgartner’s inner sanctum and his life-support system for a place more hostile than any he has encountered.
Part 2.0 - First steps: Spaceship or balloon?
Sometimes coincidence is the best manufacturer. Irrespective of my aeronautical work, says Art Thompson, such as the role I played for Northrop Grumman on the B-2 Stealth Bomber and similar projects for the US Air Force and NASA (which, of course, were top secret at
the time and were at the very cutting edge of technology). My firm, A2ZFX, builds infrastructure: everything from bars to DJ stands. And we also do stuff for movies such as Batman, Die Hard, The X-Files and Contact. My friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom I know through my work in film, was hosting the Taurus World Stunt Awards where Felix Baumgartner won a prize for his wingsuit flight across the English Channel. I met Felix at the show. A couple of months later, I flew to Linz, Austria, for Art Of Kart, a kart race in support of spinal injury research charity Wings For Life, where I represented Team USA and Felix represented Team Austria. (Sadly,I can’t remember who won.)
After that we moved on to the Hungaroring race circuit in Hungary, where Felix was driving a Formula One car and I had some friends there driving Porsches. We got to know each other, one thing let to the next, and we ended up becoming friends. A couple of days after I got back to California, the phone rang. It was 6pm my time. “Felix, isn’t it like 3.30 in the morning?,” I said.
“Well, yeah, Art, I just left my girlfriend’s house and I have a question for you. If you wanted to break Joe Kittinger’s record from more than 19 miles up, how would you go about it?”That’s what Felix is like. When he’s involved in something, then he’s on the ball 24/7.
Part 2.1 - Technology: The Capsule?
hysics has decided the layout of the Red Bull Stratos capsule, says Art Thompson. The survival cell, which will have pressure of 8psi (0.5 bars) throughout the ascent, is spherical, the best shape for handling physical stress. The size – 6ft in diameter, or approximately 183cm – was dictated by the need for a 4ft (122cm) door that allows Felix to get out of the capsule comfortably and securely wearing his spacesuit and parachute. The original idea of making the pod out of carbon had to be abandoned very quickly. A carbon pod would have expanded in such extreme cold and an almost total absence of oxygen; similarly a door made of transparent, acrylic-based plastic would shrink. So instead the pod was made out of fibreglass, just like in the old days.
The mechanism for opening the door is ingenious in its simplicity and efficiency. It slides on a larger rail on its underside and a smaller rail overhead, and leans back about 10 degrees. Opening it is relatively easy and energy-efficient for Baumgartner. This simple construction, which is completely impermeable thanks to straightforward overpressure and three silicon seals, has another advantage: if the pressure within the capsule should fall for whatever reason, Baumgartner can detach a hose used to ventilate his suit and re-pressurise the door, wedging his feet against the inside of the door to help seal it.
The survival pod is surrounded and supported by pipes made of chromium molybdenum steel: an easy-to-treat, easy-to-weld, robust material that has proved its worth millions of times over in all kinds of things from mountain biking to stock-car racing. The milk-churn shape of the overall unit came about due to the need for extra space. The six 12-volt space-tested batteries for on-board power are stored underneath the pod. Similar to truck engine batteries, they are packed in thick polystyrene for thermal isolation. Also bunched together here, to take up as little space as possible, are the oxygen and nitrogen tanks, and all the hardware that doesn’t need a protective atmosphere to work.
Read the full story in the march issue if The Red Bulletin.