The capsule that was going to take Felix Baumgartner to 120,000 feet for Tuesday’s freefall jump is removed from the launch site after high winds cancelled the launch. Mark Wilson Photos
Nobody ever said a mission to the edge of space would be clear skies and smooth sailing. Right?
The highly-anticipated final step for Red Bull Stratos, five years in the making, will have to wait for another day after the team was forced Tuesday to abort its launch at the last minute.
After waiting several hours for winds to die down, crew members began inflating the 30-million cubic foot helium balloon intended to carry Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner to an altitude of more than 120,000 feet. But Baumgartner’s historic jump from 23 miles above the surface of the Earth became impossible when gusty winds damaged the balloon around 11:30 a.m. The balloon is made of a lightweight polyethylene plastic, 1/10th the thickness of a Ziploc bag.
Tuesday’s balloon cannot be reused, leaving Stratos with just one balloon left for its final launch.
“Unfortunately that balloon is lost,” Art Thompson, Stratos technical director, said. “As it is, we have a backup balloon with the intent of doing a second attempt.” Thompson said it is possible for Stratos to get other balloons should the team lose its last one during the next launch, but added that lead times for such sophisticated balloons are not good. “There’s a lot riding on this next launch.”
The window for favorable weather conditions likely closes for Stratos some time in November, and would not reopen until June or July, according to Stratos meteorologist Don Day.
Thompson said a lot is riding on the next attempt for Stratos, whenever that might be, and that the most important thing is making sure probabilities are “very high, that we have a very good launch window.”
Thompson said that while a new target date is unknown at this time, a launch could take place as early as Thursday. He said today is out of the question for a launch due to the expectation of unfavorable weather conditions.
Thompson said the delay was tough on everyone, especially Baumgartner. Baumgartner, already geared up in his bulky pressurized space suit, was waiting inside the capsule when the launch was aborted during balloon inflation.
“For me, I go through a lot of misery because I’m looking at a big image of Felix staring, in front of me,” Thompson said. “So I can only imagine in his mind what he goes through because this is, as you all know, a multi-year build up to get to this point.
“So for Felix, it’s a lot of frustration. [There is] a lot of anticipation getting to this point, and then feeling that he’s going to have to wait [again], it’s a lot of anxiety on his part, I’m sure.”
Stratos had originally planned its final launch for Monday but changed its target date to Tuesday. Despite the weather delays, Thompson said difficulties launching the balloon are about as hard as the team anticipated.
“I know that sounds a little bit strange, but we know it’s a very difficult thing,” he said. “We’ve experienced balloon failures in the past, and understand the weather conditions. And the team is really highly aware of the fact that to launch this size of a balloon is very difficult. To launch it with a man, is on a magnitude higher.”
“The reality is that we have a person’s life at stake,” Thompson expressed later in a media briefing early Tuesday afternoon. “So our primary concern is making sure we’re launching in the best conditions possible to be able to get him into the air.”
Day explained that going up to 800 feet, Stratos needs winds to be 3 mph or less. For much of Tuesday morning, winds at 800 feet were at 20 mph, causing changes in target launch from dawn to 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., and finally, 11:30 a.m.
“Think of layers of a chocolate cake,” Day said. “You need to have every layer of the atmosphere at the right integration, at the right speed to launch the balloon.”
Day said that early today, Stratos will take a hard look at Thursday as “a good possibility” for a launch date, hoping to make a decision before 9 a.m. He said Friday and Saturday currently do not look good for launch, and that Sunday is a stronger possibility.
“The good news is, this team has persevered from setbacks like this before,” Day said. “This is all part of the process.”