That Google Exec's Top Secret Skydive Was About Science, Not Breaking Records
“When you set out on an endeavor like this, some people set up to break a record, others set out to learn something.”
Last week, a Google executive rode in a balloon all the way to the stratosphere, then jumped from more than 25 miles above the Earth's surface, breaking a world record in the process. The record fell with no warning whatsoever, because the entire project was undertaken in secret.
Why? Well, the simple answer is that the project was a scientific experiment, not a publicity stunt, according to the company who made it happen. The experiment was a resounding success, and could one day lead to humans repairing balloons and other stratospheric aircraft.
"The customer is interested in the science and technology in opening a new frontier. We didn't want the distraction of the press and having to have thousands of cameras strapped to you and stuff like that," Grant Anderson, president of Paragon Space Development Corporation, told me about Alan Eustace's recent jump.
(The customer in this case was Eustace himself. Google offered to pay, according to the Times, but he declined, fearing Google support would lead to a media circus.)
"We were doing it for the knowledge and science associated with it," he said. "When you set out on an endeavor like this, some people set up to break a record, others set out to learn something and break a record in the process. Both ways of doing it are legitimate."
Anderson's company has been in the business of keeping animals, plants, and humans alive in places they aren't supposed to be: Paragon has designed bee and ant colonies that have survived in space, and it has even sent fish up there as well.
But the purpose of this project was to see if Paragon and its partnering companies could design a system that could send a person to the stratosphere and have him stay there for a while. Indeed, Eustace stayed at 135,908 feet for roughly a half hour; Felix Baumgartner, the previous record holder, stayed at 127,852 feet for about a minute.
At the moment, there aren't really all that many reasons for a human being to want to stay in the stratosphere, where you would instantly die without a suit for a variety of reasons (lack of air, it's really cold, it's a near vacuum), but that could change in the future.
The idea of having drones floating persistently at high altitudes is one that both Google and Facebook have looked into; others believe that stratospheric airships can conduct surveillance, monitor the atmosphere, and potentially even provide internet to those way down below.
If those technologies ever take off, repairing a broken balloon or drone while it's in flight might be better done by a human in the stratosphere than by a robot.
"There's always the idea that, if you can design it, it's better to have a person in a suit as opposed to trying to do something remotely," Anderson said.
Eustace's jump differed from Baumgartner's in a few other ways, besides the lack of the Red Bull marketing machine: Eustace jumped with a small drogue chute for stabilization. That drogue made it less likely for him to start spinning quickly and pass out—something that nearly happened to Baumgartner.
"That turned out to work extremely well and we're really happy with it," Anderson said.
Eustace's jump was already in the works when Baumgartner made his then-record breaking jump, but the team realized theirs was different enough to continue on with it.
"We wanted to demonstrate a different way of going up. There was no capsule. There was much less weight and technology that needed to be developed," he said. "There were less things that could possibly go wrong."