by Michael P. Kleiman
KIRTLAND AFB, N.M
11/2/2012 - KIRTLAND AFB, N.M (AFNS) -- For
more than nine minutes Oct. 14, an international audience watched as
Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner egressed from a capsule 128,000
feet above the earth and fell toward the planet reaching speeds of 834
miles per hour, to become the first person to break the sound barrier
outside of a vehicle.
When Baumgartner safely touched down 33 miles east of Roswell, N.M.,
shortly before noon, he had also achieved another milestone, topping Air
Force Col. Joe Kittinger's 52-year-old record of the highest free fall
by 25,200 feet.
The historic event would not have occurred without the significant
participation of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Space Vehicles
Directorate and one of its contractors, ATA Aerospace.
Five years ago, Red Bull Stratos, which sponsored Baumgartner's
near-space jump, approached the directorate about supporting the
mission, but the Kirtland-based organization's officials did not believe
the activity had enough of a science and technology perspective, so
they passed on it. About 18 months later, the directorate decided to
assist the proposed mission, with the reversal attributable to a
cooperative research and development agreement signed between the agency
and ATA Aerospace.
"The agreement with ATA Aerospace allows a commercial company to use our
facilities, evaluate equipment and conduct testing. It is a good way to
offset costs and take advantage of excess capacity of both the
facilities and equipment," said Harold "Vern" Baker, chief, Space and
Integration Test Branch, Integrated Experiments and Evaluation Division,
AFRL's Space Vehicles Directorate. "We realized that under the CRADA,
we should be able to assist Baumgartner's jump and allow ATA to use our
launch equipment for our high-altitude balloon program."
For Red Bull Stratos' two unmanned flights and the three manned missions
(Baumgartner's two test jumps and his record-breaking decent), on-site
ATA Aerospace staff performed liftoff and capsule-retrieval functions
with the support and expertise of AFRL staff members Ed Coca, balloon
launch director, and Baker, who ensured pre-and post-operations
procedures had been conducted safely and properly. A 20-plus year
veteran of the Air Force high-altitude balloon program, Baker watched
Baumgartner's historic jump from mission control at the Roswell
International Air Center.
"The balloon, which took Felix's capsule to 128,000 feet, was filled
with 30 million cubic feet of helium," Baker said. "After about an hour
delay due to winds, the balloon lifted off shortly after 9:30 a.m., for a
two-and-a-half hour journey to the egress point. During that time,
Felix's visor was not defrosting and there was concern the mission would
have to be aborted."
Despite the defrost problem, the flight was not aborted and in-flight troubleshooting was attempted instead.
"The visor eventually defrosted from power in his suit, so after about
15-20 minutes, Baumgartner leapt from the capsule," Baker
recalled."Several seconds into the free fall, he began to flat spin and
there was a lot of concern in mission control, but he suddenly
stabilized. He was also close to blacking out, but if that would have
occurred, a drogue parachute would have been deployed. Those of us in
Mission Control roared when Felix landed on the ground safe and sound."
ATA Aerospace employee Tracy Gerber, who has worked at the directorate
since 1995 and has participated in many high-altitude balloon launches,
said the opportunity to play a significant role in, and witness
Baumgartner's leap into the history books, has been a career highlight.
"We've done a number of launches over the years, but none of them, in my
opinion, compare to the one we did Oct. 14 with Red Bull Stratos and
Sage Cheshire Aerospace, who built the capsule, and also the David Clark
Company, which makes all the balloon suits for the NASA program did the
one for Felix as well," said Gerber, Space Technology Research and
Integrated Vehicle Experiments deputy program manager, in support of the
Space Vehicles Directorate's Space Integration and Test Branch.
"Getting to work with all these organizations was an incredible
experience. Finally, from Oct. 23 to 28, I had the unique opportunity to
attend a post-mission event in Salzburg, Austria, sponsored by Red Bull
Stratos, to recognize all those involved in Felix's record-breaking
In preparation for the big day, Baker arrived on scene late Saturday and
then after discussions with three operations managers, including
Gerber, he and Coca directed the helium inflation of the balloon at
about 3 a.m. Shortly before 6 a.m., Baumgartner entered the 2,900-pound
capsule. Three and half hours later, he began his ascent at a rate of
about 1,000 feet per minute. The rest is history.
"Our expertise, our contract support and the contractor expertise we've
developed played a huge part in Felix's successful mission," said Baker.
"ATA Aerospace spent a lot of time, effort and money putting together
all the procedures, processes and countdowns, and deserves much of the
credit in making the record-shattering event happen. Although Felix was
the main focus and rightly so, it took a team of dedicated and
determined individuals to ensure it was mission possible."