From left, Red Bull Stratos team members Don Day, Col. Joe Kittinger, Art Thompson and Andy Walshe answer questions at the Stratos media center in Roswell, Wednesday. Noah Vernau Photo
The next window for Red Bull Stratos to launch Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner 23 miles skyward opens Sunday.
Stratos team members were hopeful Tuesday that today’s forecast would be favorable for launch but eliminated that possibility early Wednesday. Stratos meteorologist Don Day said the team will have to wait for a storm system to pass through today, Friday and Saturday, but that right now, a Sunday launch around sunrise looks promising. Launching on Monday or later in the day Sunday is also possible, he said.
With Tuesday’s damaged helium balloon now unfit for manned flight and only one backup balloon remaining on site, Stratos is searching for an additional balloon in case the backup becomes damaged during the next launch attempt.
Art Thompson, Stratos technical director, said at a Wednesday media briefing that Tuesday’s balloon loss represents an expensive investment.
He estimated the cost of the lost helium between $60,000 and $70,000, and the loss of the sophisticated, 55-story balloon at several hundred thousand dollars.
“It’s one of the reasons you find that people are hesitant to make this commitment to really going after this kind of scientific endeavor,” Thompson said. He added that for each flight thus far, manned or unmanned, Stratos has had a backup balloon on site.
Thompson said if a balloon has to be fabricated specifically for the mission at some point, acquiring one could take four or five weeks.
Despite the chance of a prolonged delay should the remaining ballon suffer damage, Stratos team members dismissed the possibility that the mission’s ultimate completion is now in jeopardy.
“We had a setback, but we’re not going to give up,” said Col. Joe Kittinger, who serves as Baumgartner’s primary point of radio contact during ascent. “We don’t give up easy. The challenge is still there, the team is still here, the equipment is still here, Felix is ready to go. There was disappointment but we’re going to press on.”
Kittinger, who holds three of the world records Baumgartner would break with a successful jump, made multiple jumps during his time with the Air Force. He said Tuesday’s setback provides no reason for discouragement. “It’s frustrating because you’re ready to go, the team is ready to go, but you have to go with what the weather is. What you see is what you get.”
Day said Tuesday’s launch was derailed by a thermal updraft at 11:42 a.m. He said a sensor located 800 feet above ground went from zero to 22 miles per hour when the thermal went up, proving how unpredictable weather can be.
Thompson said his biggest fear all along has been the launch process as it relates to weather. He said that with technology, Stratos can go above and beyond to ensure all bases are covered, possessing three complete flight suits, two state-of-the-art pressurized capsules, multiple radios, GPS systems and enough helium for two full balloon flights.
But the weather, he said, is always capable of surprises. “Weather is the one thing we can’t control. … It’s disappointing, but the crew understands [they need] to pull it together and move on, and get prepared for the next level. And the next level is going for another launch.”