Material matters: Skyfall - Baumgartner's balloon

Materials World magazine
26 Nov 2012

Last month, in a stunt that would have seemed outrageous even in the latest 007 James Bond blockbuster movie, skydiver Felix Baumgartner completed the highest ever freefall parachute jump and became the first person to break the sound barrier while doing so.

The video footage of the jump was truly heart-stopping and the subsequent documentary made for interesting viewing, but I can’t help thinking that project sponsor’s claim that the purpose was ‘to advance scientific discoveries in aerospace for the benefit of mankind’ seems no more plausible than Richard Branson’s various balloon crossings of the Atlantic were to advance the passenger experience of low-cost transatlantic air travel.  

For one thing, there was nothing particularly new about the equipment and materials used to make the jump. The helium-filled balloon was the largest ever constructed but was still just strips of polyethylene with polyester-fibre reinforced load tapes to bear the weight of the small, pressurised capsule. This comprised a glass fibre epoxy pressure sphere, a supporting cage made from welded chromium molybdenum of the type found in aircraft tubing and an outer shell comprising a foam-insulated skin covered by more glass fibre. Finally, the capsule base of 50mm thick aluminium honeycomb and cell-paper honeycomb crush pads to protect the capsule on landing is already a widely used technique in military heavy fall parachute drops.  

The pressure suit and helmet, essential for life support at these extremes of altitude and low pressure, were based on that worn by pilots of high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, and finally the parachute, although designed specifically for this jump, was based on standard skydiving technology.  

Baumgartner himself is a professional skydiver and base jumper, with notable records including jumps from the then tallest building (the Taipei 101 Tower, Taiwan), the highest bridge (Millau Bridge, France) and lowest ever base jump of only 95 feet from the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, all of no scientific value at all.  

But there is no doubting the impressive professional credentials of the project team assembled for the stratospheric skydive, including Joe Kittinger, holder of the previous record of 102,800 feet achieved as a USAF test pilot in 1960 and Dr Marle Hewett, a previous chairman of the US Naval Academy’s Aerospace Engineering Department. Project director Art Thompson previously worked for Northrop Aviation on the development of the B2 Stealth aircraft and Medical Director Dr Jonathan Clarke was a six-time Space Shuttle crew surgeon during an eight-year tenure at NASA and currently is assistant professor of Neurology and Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, USA.  

The project itself would have met the criteria of any Chartered Engineer application – including a design and construction team of more than 20 engineers and scientists, extensive prototype testing, a budget in excess of $10million and near flawless execution. At the end of it were the most incredible pictures of Baumgartner standing on the abyss 128,000 feet above Earth’s surface, before tumbling forward and plummeting earthwards to reach a top speed of 834 miles per hour.  

At the end of the day, did it really matter whether it was a spectacular stunt or serious science?