The first time you think of something in a totally new way, says Alan Eustace, people will think you’re crazy. And in all likelihood, they’ll react negatively, “not because the people don’t love you, not because they don’t care about you, but because nobody has seen this problem in that dimension. And they’ll continue for a while.”
Eventually, however, the unpopular idea will be considered inevitable, and that switch, from the impossible to the inevitable, is what excites Eustace in the field of engineering and stratospheric adventure.
In a custom 500-pound spacesuit, Eustace was strapped to a weather balloon, and rose to a height of over 135,000 feet, where he dove to Earth at speeds exceeding 821 mph — breaking both the sound barrier and previous records for high-altitude jumps.
Leading up to this jump, Eustace and his partners in StratEx had spent years solving a key problem of stratosphere exploration: returning human beings to Earth from the edge of space using minimal life-support systems. In the process, they’ve opened the door to cheaper and safer near-space travel.
Alan Eustace: Well, I was a skydiver before I was a computer scientists so I started skydiving when I turn 18 and I wrote my first computer program probably when I was 19, so the order is definitely skydiving then computer science. But I skydived for a very long time. I've obviously worked in the technology field for a long time. I had pretty much given up skydiving at one point when I moved out to California in 1984 and didn't make another skydiver for a very long time. Meanwhile I started flying airplanes and working in technology companies, working on management. And it wasn't until maybe six or seven years ago that I got the bug to skydive again and so for that I got requalified in skydiving and then it's a long story but I ended up deciding to try a stratospheric skydive as well.
The key inside that I think I had and that the team had was trying to build a capsule, a large capsule, maybe pressurized, maybe not, with lots of the infrastructure for going up was not the best way to accomplish what we were trying to accomplish. It was also not necessarily safest or the cheapest way to get into the stratosphere. And for us we wanted to take the analogy of scuba diving that if you're a scuba diver you take exactly what you need with you and nothing else underneath the water and we wanted to find a stratosphere equivalent. And so that's where we built, scuba diving for the stratosphere.
The suit was designed by ILC Dover. They built all the Apollo suits. They build all of the extra vehicle activity suits for the Space Shuttle, International Space Station, American astronauts, so they had a lot of experience of building space suits. The challenge in this case was they were doing a lot of things that they had never done before. First they had never worked with a private citizen on a project, they were used to these very long government programs that take years and years even to get the approval to move to the next step. And here they were acting like a startup company. They built a suit from scratch to deployment and testing probably in a period of a year or two and that probably is about the same time that they had to put a proposal for something else. It was the first suit that had been certified from scratch and put into production in probably 30 years so it was a big undertaking for them to do.
As far as the technology for the suit, no suit had ever been heated before it had only been cooled. This suit had an internal frame that was used to support the quiven module. It had to have thermal connections between it; the suit architecture was very different because we wanted to make sure that there was no fogging and we also needed to guarantee that we would use the minimum amount of oxygen. So normally these systems flood oxygen by you and so they don't have to worry about carbon dioxide, but we wanted to use much less oxygen and we wanted to eliminate the possibility that you would end up with any kind of moisture or freezing on the faceplate. So we had to design an entirely new architecture and they were fantastic.
We had five airplane jumps where we got used to flying the suit and learned a little bit about how to control the suit in free fall. And we followed that up by three balloon jumps, first from 57,000 feet, the second one 105,000 feet and the third was a record jump from 135,890 feet. The speeds that we acquired during that jump we broke mock one in about 37 seconds of that free fall and we reached our highest speed 822 miles an hour in about 51 seconds.
I mean the problems with the capsule are they're a bit complicated, they're heavy, which requires a very, very large balloon to be able to lift them. So because the balloon is so large it actually requires a different launch technique to use. And so by making the system a lot smaller and a lot lighter, which you could use a much smaller balloon and then intern the smaller balloon allows you to use a much simpler and I think safer launch system. So at the start we had a lot going for us. The second thing is the interconnection between the balloon and the skydiver has caused issues in the past. In a previous attempt, for instance, somebody was unable to disconnect the oxygen and therefore had to ride down with the balloon and it was a harrowing experience when Joe Kittinger in 1960 tried to get out of his balloon he had trouble getting out of the seat. So there was lots of different issues associated with capsules. And the other really bad thing about a capsule is if you're depending on the ships oxygen for most of the trip and you're just going to have what's called a bail out bottle of oxygen, as soon as you disconnect from that capsule the time is set. You have exactly maybe 15 minutes to get into breathable air or you're going to die. The nice piece about a scuba like system is that I have five hours of oxygen so there's nothing compelling for me to get out, disconnect and get down right away. I have lots of time. So if the parachute opens high that's not an issue. So there's a lot of safety aspects that come into this particular design, a lot of redundancies that came into this design to make it much safer on a lot of different dimensions.
How do you look at a problem area and try and understand whether the approach that's always been taken is the right one or not? And I think the biggest thing for me is you kind of try to go back to first principles, what is the problem that you're trying to solve? And don't look at every other solution in that space, but look at solutions in other spaces around it and try to figure out parallels. So in my case what I wanted to do is be able to explore the stratosphere. I wanted to be up in the stratosphere and I wanted to be able to do anything once I'm in the stratosphere. So a capsule idea doesn't really get you – it's hard to get the capsule up in the stratosphere, it's complicated, but the main issue is it doesn't allow me to do anything that I want in the stratosphere. So let's say I wanted to take a balloon trip and then come back down with the balloon. Well, if I build a capsule then I have to have a whole different capsule designed for going up and coming down. Or let's say I all of a sudden decided I wanted to go up in a sail plane, there's some fabulous efforts right now to see if you can use, you now, around of the Andes and even in South America these polar lifts that they think might be able to allow a sail plane to get up to maybe 100,000 feet.
So if you got this capsule well now I want to use a sailplane so I have to start over because I have to combine building an aircraft and a life support system. But let's imagine separating those two. Let's say I'm just going to build a life support system then I can conceivably just go into any sailplane and be able to do that. So the key for me is step away from it, look at the problem you're trying to solve and then start looking at all the possible solutions for that class of problem in all the domains that are around it. And if you do that you'll often find insights that make the problem that used to be incredibly complex and incredibly expensive you can find a different approach that might be a lot cheaper, it might be a lot easier, it might be a lot safer, it might cost a lot less, but the issue is when you first come up with it people are going to kind of think you're crazy. Because the first time you ever think about something in a totally new domain the initial reaction is always going to be negative, not because the people don't love you, not because they don't care about you, but because nobody has seen this problem in that dimension. And they'll continue for a while.
And then there's this moment, which I love, which is when something goes from the impossible and it will quickly go to the inevitable. And so it's that moment of impossible to inevitable and in many technologies that swap happens not over 20 years, but over a month and that's what excites me.