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TED2015

Alan Eustace: I leapt from the stratosphere. Here's how I did it

March 17, 2015

On October 24, 2014, Alan Eustace donned a custom-built, 235-pound spacesuit, attached himself to a weather balloon, and rose above 135,000 feet, from which point he dove to Earth, breaking both the sound barrier and previous records for high-altitude jumps. Hear his story of how -- and why.

Alan Eustace - Stratospheric explorer
Alan Eustace leapt to Earth from the edge of the stratosphere wearing only a spacesuit, shattering skydiving records and potentially revolutionizing the commercial space industry. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So I grew up in Orlando, Florida.
00:12
I was the son of an aerospace engineer.
00:15
I lived and breathed the Apollo program.
00:19
We either saw the launches
from our backyard
00:21
or we saw it by driving
in the hour over to the Cape.
00:23
I was impressed by, obviously,
space and everything about it,
00:27
but I was most impressed
by the engineering that went into it.
00:30
Behind me you see an amazing view,
00:34
a picture that was taken
from the International Space Station,
00:37
and it shows a portion of our planet
00:41
that's rarely seen and rarely studied
00:43
and almost never explored.
00:45
That place is called the stratosphere.
00:48
If you start on the planet
and you go up and up and up,
00:50
it gets colder and colder and colder,
00:53
until you reach the beginning
of the stratosphere,
00:56
and then an amazing thing happens.
00:58
It gets colder at a much slower rate,
and then it starts warming up,
01:01
and then it gets warmer and warmer
01:05
until the point where you can
almost survive without any protection,
01:07
about zero degrees,
01:12
and then you end up
getting colder and colder,
01:14
and that's the top of the stratosphere.
01:17
It is one of the least accessible
places on our planet.
01:19
Most often, when it's visited,
01:23
it's by astronauts
who are blazing up at it
01:25
at probably several times
the speed of sound,
01:29
and they get a few seconds on the way up,
01:32
and then they get this blazing
ball of fire coming back in,
01:34
on the way back in.
01:38
But the question I asked is, is it
possible to linger in the stratosphere?
01:40
Is it possible to experience
the stratosphere?
01:45
Is it possible to explore
the stratosphere?
01:47
I studied this using
my favorite search engine
01:54
for quite a while, about a year,
01:57
and then I made a scary phone call.
02:00
It was a reference from a friend of mine
to call Taber MacCallum
02:03
from Paragon Space
Development Corporation,
02:07
and I asked him the question:
02:10
is it possible to build
02:11
a system to go into the stratosphere?
02:15
And he said it was.
02:17
And after a period of about three years,
we proceeded to do just that.
02:19
And on October 24 of last year,
02:26
in this suit,
02:29
I started on the ground,
02:31
I went up in a balloon to 135,890 feet --
02:33
but who's counting?
02:40
(Laughter)
02:41
Came back to Earth
at speeds of up to 822 miles an hour.
02:43
It was a four-minute
and 27-second descent.
02:49
And when I got to 10,000 feet,
I opened a parachute and I landed.
02:53
(Applause)
02:57
But this is really a science talk,
and it's really an engineering talk,
03:05
and what was amazing to me
about that experience
03:09
is that Taber said, yes, I think
we can build a stratospheric suit,
03:12
and more than that, come down tomorrow
03:16
and let's talk to the team
that formed the core of the group
03:19
that actually built it.
03:22
And they did something
which I think is important,
03:24
which is they took
the analogy of scuba diving.
03:28
So in scuba diving,
03:31
you have a self-contained system.
03:33
You have everything
that you could ever need.
03:35
You have a scuba tank.
03:37
You have a wetsuit.
03:40
You have visibility.
03:42
And that scuba is exactly this system,
03:44
and we're going to launch it
into the stratosphere.
03:47
Three years later, this is what we have.
03:50
We've got an amazing suit
that was made by ILC Dover.
03:53
ILC Dover was the company
that made all of the Apollo suits
03:58
and all of the extravehicular
activity suits.
04:02
They had never sold a suit commercially,
04:04
only to the government,
04:07
but they sold one to me,
which I am very grateful for.
04:09
Up here we have a parachute.
This was all about safety.
04:13
Everyone on the team knew
04:17
that I have a wife
and two small children --
04:21
10 and 15 --
04:24
and I wanted to come back safely.
04:27
So there's a main parachute
and a reserve parachute,
04:29
and if I do nothing,
04:31
the reserve parachute is going to open
because of an automatic opening device.
04:33
The suit itself
can protect me from the cold.
04:37
This area in the front here
has thermal protection.
04:40
It will actually heat water
that will wrap around my body.
04:43
It has two redundant oxygen tanks.
04:46
Even if I was to get
a quarter-inch hole in this suit,
04:48
which is extremely unlikely,
04:51
this system would still protect me
from the low pressure of space.
04:54
The main advantage of this system
is weight and complexity.
04:59
So the system weighs about 500 pounds,
05:02
and if you compare it to the other attempt
recently to go up in the stratosphere,
05:05
they used a capsule.
05:09
And to do a capsule, there's an amazing
amount of complexity that goes into it,
05:10
and it weighed about 3,000 pounds,
05:14
and to raise 3,000 pounds
to an altitude of 135,000 feet,
05:16
which was my target altitude,
05:21
it would have taken a balloon
that was 45 to 50 million cubic feet.
05:23
Because I only weighed
500 pounds in this system,
05:30
we could do it with a balloon
that was five times smaller than that,
05:34
and that allowed us to use a launch system
that was dramatically simpler
05:37
than what needs to be done
for a much larger balloon.
05:41
So with that, I want to take you
to Roswell, New Mexico, on October 24.
05:45
We had an amazing team
that got up in the middle of the night.
05:49
And here's the suit.
05:53
Again, this is using the front loader
that you'll see in a second,
05:56
and I want to play you a video
of the actual launch.
05:59
Roswell's a great place
to launch balloons,
06:02
but it's a fantastic place
to land under a parachute,
06:04
especially when you're going to land
70 miles away from the place you started.
06:07
That's a helium truck in the background.
06:13
It's darkness.
06:16
I've already spent about an hour
and a half pre-breathing.
06:17
And then here you see the suit going on.
06:20
It takes about an hour to get the suit on.
06:24
Astronauts get this really nice
air-conditioned van
06:29
to go to the launch pad,
but I got a front loader.
06:33
(Laughter)
06:35
You can see the top.
You can see the balloon up there.
06:37
That's where the helium is.
06:40
This is Dave clearing the airspace
with the FAA for 15 miles.
06:44
And there we go.
06:52
(Laughter)
06:56
That's me waving with my left hand.
06:58
The reason I'm waving with my left hand
06:59
is because on the right hand
is the emergency cutaway.
07:01
(Laughter)
07:04
My team forbade me
from using my right hand.
07:06
So the trip up is beautiful.
It's kind of like Google Earth in reverse.
07:11
(Laughter)
07:14
It took two hours
and seven minutes to go up,
07:17
and it was the most peaceful
two hours and seven minutes.
07:19
I was mostly trying to relax.
07:22
My heart rate was very low
07:25
and I was trying not to use
very much oxygen.
07:27
You can see how the fields
in the background
07:31
are relatively big at this point,
07:34
and you can see me going up and up.
07:36
It's interesting here,
because if you look,
07:38
I'm right over the airport,
and I'm probably at 50,000 feet,
07:40
but immediately I'm about to go
into a stratospheric wind
07:43
of over 120 miles an hour.
07:46
This is my flight director telling me
that I had just gone higher
07:51
than anybody else
had ever gone in a balloon,
07:55
and I was about 4,000 feet from release.
07:57
This is what it looks like.
08:01
You can see the darkness of space,
the curvature of the Earth,
08:06
the fragile planet below.
08:09
I'm practicing my emergency procedures
mentally right now.
08:20
If anything goes wrong,
I want to be ready.
08:24
And the main thing that I want to do here
08:26
is to have a release and fall
and stay completely stable.
08:28
(Video) Ground control. Everyone ready?
08:35
Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
08:43
Alan Eustace: There's the balloon
going by, fully inflated at this point.
08:59
And there you can see a drogue parachute,
which I'll demonstrate in just a second,
09:04
because that's really important.
09:08
There's the balloon
going by a second time.
09:09
Right now, I'm about
at the speed of sound.
09:21
There's nothing for me to tell
it's the speed of sound,
09:24
and very soon I will actually be
as fast as I ever get,
09:27
822 miles an hour.
09:31
(Video) Ground control: We lost the data.
09:49
AE: So now I'm down low right now
09:54
and you can basically see
the parachute come out right there.
09:56
At this point, I'm very happy
that there's a parachute out.
10:01
I thought I was the only one happy,
10:05
but it turns out mission control
was really happy as well.
10:07
The really nice thing about this
is the moment I opened --
10:10
I had a close of friend of mine,
Blikkies, my parachute guy.
10:13
He flew in another airplane,
and he actually jumped out
10:17
and landed right next to me.
10:20
He was my wingman on the descent.
10:22
This is my landing, but it's probably more
properly called a crash.
10:25
(Laughter)
10:30
I hate to admit it, but this wasn't
even close to my worst landing.
10:34
(Laughter)
10:38
(Applause)
10:41
(Video) Man: How are you doing?
10:59
AE: Hi there!
11:01
Yay.
11:07
(Laughter)
11:08
So I want to tell you one thing
11:10
that you might not have seen
in that video,
11:12
but one of the most critical parts
of the entire thing was the release
11:14
and what happens right after you release.
11:18
And what we tried to do was use
something called a drogue parachute,
11:21
and a drogue parachute
was there to stabilize me.
11:25
And I'll show you one of those right now.
11:28
If any of you have ever
gone tandem skydiving,
11:30
you probably used one of these.
11:33
But the problem with one of these things
11:38
is right when you release,
you're in zero gravity.
11:39
So it's very easy for this
to just turn right around you.
11:42
And before you know it,
you can be tangled up or spinning,
11:46
or you can release this drogue late,
11:51
in which case what happens
is you're going down at 800 miles an hour,
11:53
and this thing is going to destroy itself
11:57
and not be very useful.
12:00
But the guys at United Parachute
Technologies came up with this idea,
12:03
and it was a roll that looks like that,
12:07
but watch what happens when I pull it out.
12:09
It's forming a pipe.
12:13
This pipe is so solid
12:16
that you can take this drogue parachute
and wrap it around,
12:20
and there's no way
it will ever tangle with you.
12:23
And that prevented
a very serious potential problem.
12:27
So nothing is possible
without an amazing team of people.
12:31
The core of this was about 20 people
12:34
that worked on this for the three years,
12:36
and they were incredible.
12:38
People asked me what the best part
of this whole thing was,
12:40
and it was a chance
to work with the best experts
12:43
in meteorology and ballooning
and parachute technology
12:45
and environmental systems
and high altitude medicine.
12:50
It was fantastic. It's an engineer's dream
to work with that group of people.
12:54
And I also at the same time
wanted to thank my friends at Google,
12:59
both for supporting me during this effort
13:02
and also covering for me
in the times that I was away.
13:05
But there's one other group
I wanted to thank, and that's my family.
13:08
Yay.
13:11
(Applause)
13:13
I would constantly give them speeches
about the safety of technology,
13:19
and they weren't hearing any of it.
13:23
It was super hard on them,
13:26
and the only reason
that my wife put up with it
13:28
was because I came back incredibly happy
after each of the 250 tests,
13:30
and she didn't want
to take that away from me.
13:36
So I want to close with a story.
13:38
My daughter Katelyn, my 15-year-old,
she and I were in the car,
13:40
and we were driving down the road,
and she was sitting there,
13:45
and she had this idea, and she goes,
"Dad, I've got this idea."
13:48
And so I listened to her idea
and I said, "Katelyn, that's impossible."
13:51
And she looks at me
13:57
and she goes, "Dad,
after what you just did,
13:58
how can you call anything impossible?"
14:02
And I laughed, and I said,
"OK, it's not impossible,
14:05
it's just very, very hard."
14:08
And then I paused for a second,
and I said, "Katelyn,
14:12
it may not be impossible,
it may not even be very, very hard,
14:15
it's just that I don't know how to do it."
14:19
Thank you.
14:22
(Applause)
14:23

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Alan Eustace - Stratospheric explorer
Alan Eustace leapt to Earth from the edge of the stratosphere wearing only a spacesuit, shattering skydiving records and potentially revolutionizing the commercial space industry.

Why you should listen

Two years after Felix Baumgartner jumped from a capsule in the stratosphere for Red Bull, a quiet group led by now-retired Google exec Alan Eustace beat the height record -- without a capsule. (Neither livestreamed nor promoted, the jump record was announced the next day.) 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.

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