Features | Oct 01, 2019
Jumping From Space 101—Alan Eustace Talks Us In

Annette O'Neil

So, late in the fall of 2014, you watched Alan Eustace get tugged 25 miles into the stratosphere by a balloon that for all the world looked like a big, white map pin. You checked out the milky curve of a somersaulting Earth through the bare bubble of his helmet. You may have even giggled a little bit at what it looks like to land a parachute when you’ve been immobilized into the shape of a gingerbread man. You may have even thought, “That’s just a prohibitively expensive belly jump. I could totally do that.”

Okie dokie, armchair astronaut. Before you start calling national space programs with your elevator pitch, let’s talk about what it’s really like to skydive from space. There are precious few people on the planet who can speak from that experience. Luckily, Alan Eustace is happy to tell you all about it.

“It was so different from any other skydive I’ve ever done,” he began. “It is hard to even describe. It’s so hard that you can’t even effectively use skydiving as a basis to describe the differences … or find any similarities, for that matter.”

Yeah. It’s like that.

To start to find a framework, let’s start where Eustace started: in training. Secret training. Eustace and his cohort went to a handful of drop zones to get the job done: Skydive Perris in California and Skydive DeLand in Florida for much of it, then undisclosed locations in Coolidge, Arizona, and Roswell, New Mexico, for the super-secret-squirrel stuff.

He and his project partner, friend, instructor, coach and tutor—Daniel “Blikkies” Blignaut—ran the numbers and tested max exit weights to figure out how the canopy flight and landing would work. To do so, they went out as a tandem with Eustace in the back and Blignaut in the front. The pair had a 70-pound bundle in front of them, covered with camouflage.

“If anybody ever asked, it was a military-related project,” he said, grinning. “No one ever questioned the fact that we were going out with an exit weight of 550 pounds.”

They would have started asking questions, of course, if Eustace had been wearing his space suit.

Unlearning Everything

The suit was the key to the entire enterprise. In Eustace’s case, this was truer than it was for other space-bound freefallers, because he didn’t use a capsule to get to altitude; there was nothing between him and the void but the suit. (It’s now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia if you’d like to marvel at it for yourself.)

“In that giant suit, you can’t hear anything. You have no feel for the air at all,” Eustace said. “You’re pressurized. All you hear is the sound of yourself breathing. I mean, you can hear wind noise, but it is very muffled. And then, when you try to do the movements to turn or stop a turn, you find that the control of movements is actually opposite to normal skydiving and there’s a huge lag. If you want to turn right, you have to put your right hand out. And by the time you start to turn, if you pull your hand back in, you’ll get a fast turn going in the other direction. Basically, you have to unlearn everything.”

The suit itself is no slinky little unitard, either. According to those in the know, about a third of the pilots who train in a space suit wash out due to the psychological pressure cooker of simply wearing it. Eustace spent more than 100 hours in it on the ground and during tests, but he readily admits that he never quite got used to the  challenge presented by it.

“You can’t just reach out and grab something,” he explained. “You’ve got bearings in your shoulders, in your elbows and around your wrists. To make an even simple movement requires this complex set of movements to get the right thing to happen.”

Fine finger movements, as it turns out, are especially hard. Using them for even the simplest movements is like trying to do fine needlework while wearing a pair of lead-lined arctic mittens. If you’re not careful, you run out of finger strength before you’re anywhere close to your goal.

“I’m an engineer, so I thought it was cool how all the bearings work,” he continued, “and how you have to manipulate them to do even simple things like [using] the push-to-talk switch. We didn’t use it on the entire ascent or on the way down, and then only once to confirm I was ready for release. But just the act of getting to that push-to-talk switch, pushing it and releasing it used a lot of energy, and we were saving all energy for freefall and for the canopy ride.”

Pitching and Spinning

Right. So: You’re in a claustrophobic suit. You’re in Opposite World. Everything is delayed. Add to that the fact that you’re pitching up and down the entire time because of the drogue system. Eustace said, “We tried a lot of things to dampen that out, but it is just not possible, because that drogue system is what would keep you from spinning at 400 rpm if you were unconscious. So, the pitching is definitely worth it. All other aspects were in control, but we had no way to stop that motion.”

Speaking of spinning: Let’s touch on Eustace’s very favorite part of the jump. It was the exit, surprisingly, since it didn’t quite go as planned.

The ingenious double 3-ring (that Blignaut designed) that attached Eustace to the balloon essentially prescribed the exit. When mission control initiated the balloon release, the first 3-ring released. As it released, Eustace dropped. Then, as he dropped, that motion released the other 3-rings. It was designed as a beautiful way to make sure Eustace released completely and totally in exactly the right position, working with the physics of the drogue system. (As the drogue-release mechanism comes into play, it adds a little bit of drag around Eustace’s neck, causing his upper body to fall just a little slower than his lower body.)

“On the 105,000-foot test jump, I basically went up into an almost-vertical, head-high position,” he said, “and then I went right back to face to Earth. But on that final high-altitude jump, I ended up doing a totally unexpected slow-motion backflip. I wasn’t worried about it, because the drogue system made entanglement impossible, and because Blikkies and I had done backflip exits dozens of times when we were doing tandem testing.”

“What it did was to allow me to see the balloon for the first time,” Eustace said. “So, as I’m going into freefall, I see the balloon going over above me as I am falling away from it. And I come by a second time and I see the balloon a second time, and I see the drogue parachute. All in what appears to be slow motion, all in total silence. That was special. It brought a smile to my face at that moment … and now, when I remember it.”

Deceleration

Eustace couldn’t deploy a parachute until a minimum of 38,000 feet lest the deceleration hurt himself, the parachute or both. With that waypoint behind him, Eustace deployed his canopy.

“Since [former record holder] Felix [Baumgartner] spun so badly [on his 127,852-foot world record jump in 2012], I was obsessed with holding heading,” Eustace recalled. “[This] required a really delicate touch, since even the smallest of movements above Mach 1 have a big impact on your direction.”

He continued, “I was supposed to pull at 10,000 [feet]. I started the pull sequence at 12,000, but since I can’t see the handles, there is an exact sequence that I have to go through to make sure I pull the main rather than the cutaway handle. I went through it, but as I pulled, my hand slipped off, so I had to go through the sequence again. I laughed at myself, since I had 126,000 feet to get a firm grip on the handle, and because I was obsessed about directional control, I waited until the last minute.”

“We had set it up so [Blignaut] was flying in a Kodiak [airplane],” Eustace said. “He jumped out and opened above me, and then he was my wingman on the way down. The moment I opened, within about a minute, my best friend on the project was open and flying right next to me. He was on the radio to tell me about any fences or obstructions, because it is hard to see in that suit.”

Blignaut landed about 20 seconds before Eustace in distinctly light-and-variable conditions. (“The smoke hugged the ground,” Eustace noted, “and we used it to line up our approaches, but we both feel like we landed downwind. We think the wind right on the ground was in the opposite direction to the wind at 500 to 200 feet, but we’ll never know for sure.”) Eustace, while doing his best gingerbread-man-under-a-parachute impression, did his best to land as close to his friend as he could.

“He was at my side on the ground 12 seconds after I touched the ground,” Eustace said, smiling. “It was special.”

The landing was gymnastic, to say the least. But according to Eustace, no harm, no foul ... and no other options really existed. “On the tandem, it was pretty easy to drag a foot, turn around backwards and slide in,” he explained, “but in a space suit, that’s not possible. We didn’t figure that out until the first landing, which was a crash-and-burn. Honestly, every other landing was crash-and-burn, but that was on purpose at that point.”

“On the first jump, I did a face plant,” he continued. “On the second jump, I managed to turn 90 degrees instead of 180 degrees, which meant I landed on my arm and broke the handle covers, which are incredibly strong. We decided that was more dangerous than the face-plant, so the face-plant became standard operating procedure. It is hard to land at a weight of 435 pounds when you have no articulation between your knees and shoulders. Nothing moves. It is just one flat plane, and you can’t stand up, but it’s pretty fun to land in a giant air bag. I never had a single scratch from any of my landings in the suit.”

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Rest and Recovery

What happens, then, after you land a parachute after having been dragged up into space? Apparently, you sleep like the dead for a long, long time.

“At that point, you’re totally exhausted,” Eustace said, laughing. “You’ve been in the suit since 2:00 in the morning, pre-breathing oxygen. You’ve had no food for 14 hours and no water for seven and a half, because you basically need to stop your system so there’s no chance of choking on your own vomit in the breathing tube. At that point, you are pretty tired.”

OK, the food thing makes sense. But the water? Didn’t Eustace’s mom tell him about staying hydrated?

“The initial design [of the suit] had me using a Camelbak-style drink bag for use during the flight,” he explained. “We did a test where I was wearing one. The test involved me, in the suit, falling back onto a mattress to test the durability of the suit and environmental system. Falling in the suit was fine. But, since the bag was in the back, it got smashed. The pressure completely overwhelmed the check value and sent a geyser of water directly into my mouth. It was a total surprise. The joke was I would land normally and drown myself with my own water. We decided to leave it out.

“The other reason I didn’t have water,” he said, “is that, even in a pre-breathe, every time I sucked from the water nozzle, I would get nitrogen in my system. I don’t know why that is, but we were carefully monitoring my nitrogen using a spectrometer, so we could look at my exhale and tell if there was nitrogen in there. Every time I drank water, for some reason it would show nitrogen. Nitrogen causes decompression sickness … so no water.”

Luckily, Eustace never had a problem with decompression sickness (or any other sickness, for that matter) on the project. The project had excellent air-medicine physicians, although perhaps bored ones. That’s meticulous pre-planning for you: Eustace and the team went to significant lengths to mitigate the risks and—tada!—never had any issues. 

“I never had a single injury,” Eustace said, smiling, “except for one. During testing, I jumped out of a truck to grab an altimeter I had forgotten. I cut my finger. Kept the doctors busy trying to find a Band-Aid. We completed the jump a few minutes later. That was it.”

What does this mean for you, dear reader? Well: Eustace’s current projects are rather outside the air-sports space. If you remain keen to hook yourself to a balloon and venture above 135,890 feet AGL—that’s just under 26 miles, if you’d like a rounder number—he likely won’t challenge your record bid. A nice solo belly jump from space, right? You got this. Probably.

Unsurprisingly, Alan Eustace’s amazing accomplishment is landing him as a 2019 inductee in the International Skydiving Hall of Fame. Want to shake his hand? He’ll be at the International Skydiving Museum & Hall of Fame Celebration at Skydive Perris in California October 17-19.


About the Author

Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.

 

 

 

 

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