What the well-dressed daredevil wears

by Tim Hornyak, BA'95

Ever since the rumoured crash of a UFO in 1947, Roswell, New Mexico has been famously associated with alien astronauts. Now it’s going down in history for spacemen of another kind: high-flying human daredevils.

When Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a balloon capsule nearly 40 km above Roswell in October, he plummeted to Earth at over 1,300 km/h. He became the first person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle, and landed safely with a parachute. Millions of viewers around the world watched the feat online.

The successful jump would have been impossible without Baumgartner’s years of training, but also the cutting-edge technology that supported him. A key component of that was his unique pressure suit, and aerospace engineer Shane Jacobs, BEng’04, had a hand in designing it.

“The suit was the only thing separating Felix from near-vacuum at 128,000 feet, and the suit performed flawlessly,” says Jacobs, a mechanical engineering grad who works at the David Clark Company, a longtime aerospace equipment manufacturer. “From the moment Felix depressurized the capsule, his life relied on that suit.”

The vital importance of a tough but maneuverable pressure suit became starkly apparent in 1962 when Soviet high-altitude sky diver Pyotr Dolgov perished during a jump of 93,970 feet. Dolgov had difficulty moving in his bulky suit and cracked his visor while departing his capsule. The depressurization he experienced at such a high altitude was fatal. He was dead before he landed on the ground.

A Calgary native, Jacobs credits McGill professors such as Arun Misra and Andrew Higgins with sparking his interest in space. He was part of a team that worked on Baumgartner’s suit for three years and the hard work shows. Aside from its unprecedented speed, the jump bettered the long established record of 102,800 feet, set in 1960 by Joe Kittinger, who was in Mission Control as a mentor during Baumgartner’s freefall.

Baumgartner’s tailor-made suit was based on NASA and Air Force suits for high-altitude pilots. It’s a marvel of protection and functionality: pressured to 3.5 pounds per square inch, it has a fire-retardant exterior that is also insulation against the extreme cold of the stratosphere. Vented air helps regulate the internal temperature, while the helmet’s regulator provides Baumgartner with 100 percent oxygen. Meanwhile, the suit has a chestpack for power, headphones and microphones for ground communication, high definition cameras on the legs and chest, and, of course, a backpack parachute.

Most of all, it was engineered for mobility, so Baumgartner could maneuver out of the capsule and then get into a delta position during free fall for a shot at the speed record.

One hiccup during the ride was when the helmet visor began misting. When Baumgartner reported this, the engineering team had to respond quickly. “Felix was instructed to switch over from capsule power to his chestpack power,” says Jacobs. “When he did, it became apparent that the visor heat was working just as designed. In this way, the team was able to isolate the problem and come up with a solution in real time.”

Jacobs was thrilled to see Baumgartner land safely, but his next projects might take his handiwork further toward the stars. “We just recently designed a new pair of prototype extravehicular activity gloves for NASA, which will hopefully evolve into the next generation spacesuit glove for future space explorers,” he says. “These gloves provide the pressurized mobility necessary to perform geology [experiments] on the moon or Mars, for example, or to explore an asteroid.”