FREDERICA, Del. (AP) - When Google executive Alan Eustace skydived from the edge of space into new world records, he had a Delaware company to thank for his breathtaking view.
His one-of-a-kind helmet was made here.
Its bubble-face gave Eustace an eyeful over New Mexico late last month as he shattered the earlier 128,100-foot high-altitude skydive record Australian daredevil Felix Baumgartner set two years ago.
Eustace’s Oct. 24 plunge from the edge of space made him the second person after Baumgartner to break the sound barrier outside an aircraft, as he set the new 135,890-foot free-fall distance record and vertical speed record at a whopping 822 mph.
His unique, wide-shield helmet was made by ILC Dover at its main location near Frederica. The longtime space-equipment developer and manufacturer, established in 1947 and best known for making NASA Apollo astronauts’ mission gear, also made his dive-suit at its Texas center.
But the record-breaking dive’s Delaware connection was not widely known.
That’s because, unlike Baumgartner’s ballyhooed jump sponsored by an energy drink, the self-financed jump by Eustace - Google’s “senior vice president of knowledge” - was developed quietly with Paragon Space Development Corp., a commercial space-travel company.
A number of partners were selected for the project group, known as the Stratospheric Explorer, or “StratEx” team, with ILC responsible for his custom-made spacesuit.
“We’re pretty happy that Alan selected us,” Philip Spampinato of ILC said in an exclusive News Journal interview. When Eustace and Paragon “decided we were really the right company” to design and manufacture the suit, he said, “it was nice to be recognized as a leader.”
About 30 ILC employees in Delaware and Texas designed, tested and produced Eustace’s suit at an undisclosed cost in the 2½-year-project.
“It was a new suit developed off a suit we proposed for the former NASA Constellation program,” said Spampinato, a project manager.
But there were key differences between the Eustace’s equipment and space station gear.
Most significant for the helmet, Eustace wanted as large a field of vision as possible, he said. The suit also had to be designed with abrasion patches for a direct earth landing, as opposed to astronauts’ descent in a capsule.
The suit also needed to accommodate internal pressure of 8.3 pounds per square inch - compared with the 4.3 pounds per square inch for space stations or 5.4 for dive suits - while maintaining flexibility despite the fact that rising pressure increases suits’ rigidity, Spampinato said.
His heated gloves were similar to those worn by astronauts, but the suit had to keep him warm at top altitudes and prevent heat transfer from the air rushing by his suit on descent, he said.
To reduce heat generation, Eustace minimized physical activity, opting to barely flex a foot instead of giving thumbs-up to acknowledge crew messages, he said.
The suit, in which Eustace breathed 100 percent oxygen, also had to handle changes in pressure and equip Eustace with on-demand 100 percent oxygen to breathe, Spampinato said.
“So, you’ll see he’s wearing a mask like a fighter pilot,” he said.
Bottled gas could have been used, he said, but that would have added too much weight.
Weight was especially important because, unlike Baumgartner’s ascent in a capsule, Eustace went up under a helium balloon that expanded in the thinning atmosphere from 30,000 cubic feet to 11 million cubic feet, Spampinato said. That made it big enough to see with the naked eye from the ground, he added.
At top height, he said, an explosive device was detonated to separate Eustace from the balloon. He began a free fall that lasted about 4½ minutes before he deployed a parachute, riding down to Earth under its canopy in 10 to 15 minutes.
His descent was followed by chase planes and a helicopter - and video-recorded from multiple vantages to capture the history-making jump for an upcoming documentary.
A video camera on Eustace’s helmet recorded some of the most-fascinating video, Spampinato said, showing “the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space.”
Eustace landed about 70 miles from his takeoff point, with the balloon recovered about 30 miles from him.
Spampinato was the lone Delawarean among four ILG project members in the StratEx crew in New Mexico that got to watch it all. Others from ILC were Dave Graziosi, Mitch Sweeney and Ryan Lee.
In his 30 years with ILC, Spampinato said, “it’s been a pretty exciting place to work.”
And while that excitement has included meeting astronauts, working on the StratEx team for Eustace’s dive “is one of the highlights,” he said. “This is a pretty cool thing.”
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com
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