The National Air and Space Museum boasts an extraordinary collection of record setting balloon baskets and gondolas. There is Explorer II, which carried U.S. Army Air Corps Captains Albert W. Stevens and Orvil Anderson to a record altitude of (22,066 meters) 72,395 feet on November 11, 1935. In August 1978, Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo, and Larry Newman made the first balloon crossing of the Atlantic in Double Eagle II. Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones flew Breitling Orbiter III on the first non-stop flight around the world in 1999. Steve Fossett made the first solo balloon circumnavigation of the globe three years later in his Spirit of Freedom.
The Museum will welcome a new record setter into its collection on April 2, 2014, when the capsule that carried Austrian parachutist Felix Baumgartner to an altitude of 39,044 meters (128,100 feet) over Roswell, New Mexico, and the pressure suit and parachute that brought him safely back to Earth on an earlier jump from 29,455 meters (96,640 feet), will go on display as part of a two-month temporary exhibition called, Red Bull Stratos: Mission to the Edge of Space. Both the capsule and the pressure suit and parachute that Baumgartner wore on the 39,044-meter (128,100-foot) jump will become a part of our permanent collection and will be displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center after the closing of the temporary show on May 26.
Baumgartner, a veteran of the Austrian military, had earned a reputation as one of world’s most experienced sky divers and BASE jumpers, an activity in which participants parachute from Buildings, Antennae, Spans (bridges) and high elevations on Earth. In 1990 he set the world record for jumping from a building when he parachuted over (366 meters) 1,200 feet from the top of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, then the tallest building in the world. When the Taipei 101 captured the tallest building honors in 2004, Baumgartner jumped form the 91st floor. If he held the record for jumps from the world’s tallest buildings, he also claimed the honor of having made the lowest BASE jump ever– 28 meters (93 feet) from the hand of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Having conquered the BASE jumping heights, he also earned high marks for distance, sky-diving across the English Channel on July 20, 2003 equipped with a pair of carbon fiber wings.
Baumgartner’s 2012 Red Bull Stratos jump earned him three more world records: the highest balloon flight, the highest free fall and the fastest speed ever achieved in free fall. While still in the high, thin air near the top of his jump, with the whole world watching on live television, he became the first human being to break the speed of sound in free fall. The success of the project was the result of the efforts of an incredible team. Technical Project Director Art Thompson, founder of Sage Cheshire Aerospace, Inc., designed, built, and tested the high tech capsule, served as flight test director, and selected the other members of the team. A genuine American hero, Joe Kittinger was the previous record holder, having parachuted to Earth form an altitude of 31,333 meters (102,800 feet) while serving as an Air Force Captain in 1960. Following a distinguished military career that included time in the Hanoi Hilton as a Vietnam era POW, he continued flying, logging 16,800 hours in the air, including the first solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic. Kittinger mentored Baumgartner and handled all communications with the capsule. Dr. John Clark, who served as crew surgeon for six Space Shuttle missions, was medical director for the Red Bull Stratos project.
The members of the team are quick to point out that the project made important contributions to aerospace safety. The development of a new generation of pressure suits and parachute systems, the establishment of protocols for handling exposure to the extreme conditions of pressure and temperature, and the study of the impact of supersonic acceleration and deceleration on the human body were among the achievements. “We’ll be setting new standards for aviation,” Dr. Clark reported. “Red Bull Stratos is testing new equipment and developing the procedures for inhabiting such high altitudes as well as enduring such extreme acceleration. The aim is to improve the safety for space professionals as well as potential space tourists.”
The National Air and Space Museum will mark the opening of the temporary exhibition and celebrate the arrival of the new artifacts into the collection with a special GE Lecture presentation in the Lockheed Martin Imax Theater at 7 pm on April 2. Felix Baumgartner and the members of his team will be part of a panel discussion exploring the details and results of their record setting project.
Tom Crouch is senior curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.