The oxygen gauge now showed two-tenths of one liter of oxygen left, very likely not even enough to allow a return to earth. Kittinger, realizing that he would have to descend, began to release helium from the balloon in preparation for the return trip. Moments later, Colonel Stapp's voice came across the radio ordering Kittinger to begin his descent immediately. In awkward, halted Morse code, Kittinger sent his reply: "C-O-M-E A-N-D G-E-T M-E."
David Simons almost choked. It was his worst nightmare come true. He knew of the obscure syndrome pilots referred to as the breakaway–or break-off–phenomenon. High-altitude jet test pilots had reported it as a dreamy hallucinatory state that beckons one higher and higher. A 1957 study by pioneering Navy researchers Dr. Ashton Graybiel and Carl Clark showed that feelings of extreme isolation and physical separation from the earth were experienced by about 35 percent of high-altitude, solo pilots. Ross and Lewis had reported a similar sensation on their record-setting balloon flight in the Navy's Strato-Lab I, and some had likened it to divers' "rapture of the deep" that accompanies the bends. It was a dangerous false sensation of freedom and detachment. Some had speculated that Hawthorne Gray had been seduced by the "breakaway" on his final flight. And Simons now feared that Kittinger had succumbed. He also wondered whether Kittinger had found his excuse to bail out and skydive back to earth.
Stapp grimly repeated his order to descend. The ground crew waited for a reply. Then it came: "V-A-L-V-I-N-G G-A-S." Kittinger was on his way down.
Craig Ryan, The Pre-Astronauts; Manned Ballooning on the Threshhold of Space (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 83-84
This little bit of drama played out in the skies over southern Minnesota at an altitude of approximately 96,000 feet in June of 1957 during the flight of Manhigh I, the engineering test flight for a rigorous Air Force program exploring the mysteries of human biological reactions to stratopheric flight. Two months later, David Simons, a doctor and Air Force medical researcher would rise from an iron pit mine near Crosby, MN, and ascend to a peak altitude of 101,500 feet over Detroit Lakes, MN, setting an altitude record which would stand for three years until then-Captain Joe Kittinger rose to 102,800 feet over the New Mexico desert and stepped off the "Highest Step in The World" to parachute into history.
Less well-known are Clifton McClure and Nick Piantanida. McClure flew Manhigh III to a less-impressive altitude of 99,700 feet but endured physiological danger more perilous than either Simons or Kittinger had endured. Likely due to a strenuous–and secret–repacking of his onboard parachute and the failure of the ground crew to repack the dry-ice cap on his gondola, McClure's internal body temperature rose to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. In a testament to how much of a tough son-of-a-bitch McClure was, despite having his body rise to a temperature which would have incapacitated any other man, McClure remained conscious and continued to do his job until he was safely back on the ground.
Finally, there was the tragic case of Nick Piantanida, a truck driver, erstwhile exotic pet dealer and daredevil from New Jersey who six years after Kittinger's final statospheric jump decided that he was the man to beat the jump record. After two failed attempts, the second of which reached an unofficial altitude of 123,000 feet, Piantanida ascended over the South Dakota prairie in his Strato-Jump III gondola. Things were going well until about 57,000 feet when the ground crew heard a whoosh and a scream of "Emergency!" from Piantanida.
The gondola was immediately separated from the balloon, but unfortunately the gondola's cargo drogue deployed–as designed–and slowed the descent. Four critical minutes later, he had still only fallen to 43,000 feet. A total of 25 minutes elapsed before Piantanida was back on the ground.
Though he was immediately rushed to a hospital, Pinatanida had spent too long exposed to a near-vaccuum and, after four months in a coma, he died at the Veteran's Hospital in Philadelphia.
What had gone wrong? Those monitoring the radio transmission heard a rush of air. Did the helmet's face shield develop a hairline crack? Was the heating element to blame? Was there a problem with the seal of either the helmet or the suit? Did Piantanida crack open the face shield for just the briefest instant to clear condensation as some later charged and others vehemently denied? After years of litigation and rumors circulating among parachuting circles, we still don't know the truth.
What we do know is that Nick Piantanida suffered the most severe explosive decompression ever endured by a human being.
As I watched Felix Baumgartner's ascent yesterday and I heard him state that he couldn't feel his visor heater working I immediately thought of Nick Piantinadi, as I presume everyone at Red Bull Stratos mission control did. If you were observant, you may have noticed that at that point they stopped broadcasting the air-to-ground loop and Bob Hager played the problem off as a glitch, but any problem with the visor is no mere glitch, it's potentially show-stopping and possibly even life-threatening. Luckily, either they were able to get the heater working or discovered that it was already working and it wasn't an impediment to Baumgartner's the jump.
The other major event was the tumble/flat spin. Flat spin was the very reason Kittinger made his historic jump in 1960. The goal of Project Excelsior was to test the Beaupre Multi-stage Parachute System as a life-saving device for jet pilots flying at stratospheric altitudes and supersonic speeds. The BMPS would automatically deploy a stabilizer 'chute before the main 'chute, thus eliminating any danger of flat spin, a phenomenon which can kill a human being if it becomes severe enough. Excelsior III proved that the BMPS worked, and though Baumgartner had a similar parachute system, his aim was to try to go supersonic. This meant he would avoid using his stabilizer. When I saw Baumgartner spinning I thought for sure he was dead. Thankfully, as with the visor heater, Baumgartner recovered, his main 'chute bloomed, and he landed safely.
A lot of people think that the most dangerous part of parachuting or ballooning is the possibility of making a crater upon landing, but the real dangers, particularly in stratospheric manned ballooning, come during the ascent and the freefall. During ascent, the length of time you spend in a hostile environment greatly increases the risk that an equipment failure, no matter how seemingly trivial, can become fatal. During freefall, as explained above, flat spin alone can kill you. Granted, if both your main and reserve parachutes fail you're dead-by-splattering upon landing, but the likelihood of that happening in this day-and-age is very small. Personally, I would never in a million years jump off of a bridge with a bungee cord tied to my ankles, but I wouldn't hesitate (too much) to jump out of an airplane with a parachute on my back.
I would say that Baumgartner's recovery from the flat spin was lucky, but the success of the rest of the flight and jump was due mainly, beyond Baumgartner's fearlessness, to American ingenuity, experience and commercial financial power. Contrast Baumgartner's success to the bungling of Michel Fournier's 2008 jump attempt which happened as a result of miscommunication between the American and French halves of the launch team–by which I mean: bungling by the French half of his team. Baumgartner is Austrian and his countrymen should be proud (by expressing their pride in their native Austrian), but this was an American operation on American soil and an example of American Exceptionalism.
A lot of people are calling Red Bull Stratos a "stunt". That is completely wrong–Red Bull Stratos was a space mission involving all of the logistics, engineering, and science involved in such a mission. In the political sphere, there's a lot of talk about ObamaSpace being the next step toward commercializing manned spaceflight. Nonsense. SpaceShipOne was the first successful commercial manned space flight. Red Bull Stratos was the second. Baumgartner may not get astronaut wings for his flight, but he more than deserves them.