The Massachusetts-made suit that Felix Baumgartner wore on his record-breaking, 24-mile plummet to earth Sunday will probably set new standards for an emerging category of high-altitude protection.
David Clark Co. of Worcester worked for four years to customize the suit for Baumgartner’s jump, a stunning feat that will be studied to determine how US military pilots, astronauts, and even passengers aboard future commercial space flights might be able to survive similarly high falls.
In the coming weeks, engineers and designers at David Clark Co., which has been making gear for air and space missions since 1941, will analyze data collected from sensors and cameras embedded in Baumgartner’s suit to see what, if anything, needs to be altered as the company looks to design and manufacture more of the high-altitude, high-pressure outfits.
Preliminary reports a day after the jump, in which Baumgartner reached a maximum speed of 833.9 miles per hour, indicate that the suit did its job well; it helped the Austrian daredevil break the record for highest and fastest jump, while keeping him safe as he sped toward the New Mexico desert.
“It really represents the state of the art in pressure-suit technology now,” said Dr. Shane Jacobs, softgoods design director at David Clark Co. and part of a team of about 50 people who worked on Baumgartner’s outfit.
The 30-pound suit consists of four layers of highly advanced materials. Valves and vents maintain air pressure and temperature to protect Baumgartner from the extreme cold during the jump. It is also much more flexible than rigid spacesuits or the gear worn by reconnaissance pilots.
David Clark Co. has long been at the forefront of advanced pressure suits for NASA and the US military. It made suits for former astronaut Ed White, who performed the first space walk, and even designed the outfit that protected skydiver Joe Kittinger who previously set the record for highest and fastest jump in 1960.
Its involvement in the Baumgartner jump, which was funded by the energy drink maker Red Bull, was largely driven by its desire to gain more research and development knowledge, said Jacobs. Several of its employees were at the control center for the jump in Roswell, N.M.
“The biggest thing for us is understanding how the equipment and the suit will do for high-altitude bailouts,” he said, which is becoming a greater concern among customers as both military and commercial crafts are able to fly at higher altitudes.
“The more we prove out the technology, and have successes like this, it really give us more confidence going forward as we embark on new and different missions,” he said.
The Red Bull Stratos team behind Sunday’s jump has agreed to share data gathered during the event with both NASA and the US military, whose pilots in high-altitude reconnaissance planes wear high-tech pressure suits similar to the one Baumgartner used on Sunday.
“We added a a little confidence to what the military has been doing for a number of years in these suits,” said Mike Todd, a veteran skydiver and the Red Bull Stratos life support engineer who was in charge of Baumgartner’s equipment.
One of the key differences between the Red Bull suit and one the military uses is mobility, said Todd. The military’s suits are typically designed for pilots who spend time seated in cockpits. Baumgartner needed something in which he could freefall in a head-down position.
But even though Baumgartner’s jump has demonstrated someone can survive a fall from more than 100,000 feet above the earth’s surface with the right kind of gear, Todd said, these types of jumps are extremely dangerous and require the sort of training and expertise that someone like Baumgartner has.
Before Sunday, said Todd, Baumgartner trained for years and had performed more than 2,000 other jumps.