Some called him a hero; others, just crazy. But one thing is certain: Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking space jump holds the potential to provide valuable scientific data for several aspects of aerospace research, including coatings.
After years of research and preparation, and support from Red Bull and a team of experts, Fearless Felix ascended to an altitude of 128,100 feet (slightly over 24 miles) on Oct. 14.
Photos: Red Bull
|Felix Baumgartner fell at 833.9 miles per hour, becoming the first person to break the sound barrier with only his body.|
As millions of people watched, he then plummeted toward the ground for more than four minutes, reaching a maximum speed of 833.9 miles per hour (or Mach 1.24) and setting at least three records—highest manned balloon flight, highest skydive, and first person to exceed the speed of sound without a vehicle.
Oh yeah, and he landed on his feet.
The Capsule Built for Space
The Red Bull Stratos capsule was Felix’s most essential safety mechanism, protecting him from subzero temperatures in a pressurized environment with oxygen. See video.
Attached to a 550-foot-tall, helium-inflated balloon, the sophisticated space capsule was not only Baumgartner’s vehicle to the stratosphere, but also his backup life support system in what the company calls a “completely unforgiving environment.”
Sage Cheshire Aerospace, located in Lancaster, CA, spent five years designing, building, and testing the Red Bull Stratos capsule, which weighed around 2,900 pounds and can be described in four components:
• Pressure Sphere: This contains the capsule instrumentation and is molded from fiberglass and epoxy coated with fireproof paint. The door and windows are acrylic and were pressurized to 8 psi.
• Cage: The cage surrounds the pressure sphere and supports the capsule’s overall structure. It is made from welded Chrome-Moly (chromium molybdenum) aircraft tubing/pipes. The cage frame attaches to the balloon and bears the load for the parachute system and capsule touchdown.
• Shell: The shell is the part of the capsule visible to the observer, surrounding both the pressure sphere and cage. It is a foam-insulated skin covered in fiberglass and paint, providing protection from stratosphere temperatures that can reach -70ºF.
• Base and Crush Pads: At 8 feet in diameter, the capsule base is the broadest part and is comprised of a two-inch-thick aluminum honeycomb sandwich panel that protects the capsule from sharp objects during landing and provides a mounting area for the control box. Outside of the base are the crush pads, composed of cell-paper honeycomb covered by a fiberglass/epoxy fairing. Designed for one-time-only use, the crush pads are designed to handle 8 Gs on impact.
Testing and Recoating
Before the final jump, Baumgartner completed two manned balloon flight tests. The first took him to an altitude of 71,615.2 feet, from which he plunged back to earth at speeds nearing 365 miles per hour. The space capsule descended separately under a parachute and landed undamaged in the New Mexico desert.
|The capsule that carried “Fearless Felix” into the stratosphere took five years to design and included fireproof coatings.|
After the second test, which took Baumgartner to an altitude of 97,145.7 feet, the capsule was damaged in a hard landing (see video) on a rocky, uneven surface that threw the structure on to its side.
“We ended up rebuilding the interior instrument panel section and the pods,” said Art Thompson, the technical project director and co-founder of Sage Cheshire Aerospace. “They took quite a hit when it came down, and so it cracked some of the fiberglass on the interior panels.”
“As a precaution, we stripped all the fireproof paint off the base of the sphere outside and inside and did testing to verify the laminates. We then built up some reinforcement layers just as a precaution inside and out and vacuumed-bag laminated all that together,” Thompson said.