May 25, 2008

Adventurer Plans to Parachute from Space

By Matt Higgins

He has spent two decades, and nearly $20 million, in a quest to fly up 40 kilometers to the upper reaches of the atmosphere using a helium balloon, just so he can jump back to Earth again. Now Michel Fournier says he's ready at last to make his "Great Leap."

Depending on weather conditions, Fournier, a 64-year-old retired French Army officer, will attempt what he has dubbed Le Grand Saut (The Great Leap) on Sunday over the plains of northern Saskatchewan, Canada. He will climb into the gondola of a helium balloon that when inflated resembles a giant jellyfish. A two-hour journey will take him to 130,000 feet - higher than any balloonist has been before.

At that altitude he will see the blackness of space on the horizon and the curvature of Earth below, and experience weightlessness. Then he plans to step out of his capsule wearing only a pressurized suit and a parachute, and plunge to Earth in a mere 15 minutes.

If successful, Fournier will fall longer, farther and faster than anyone has in history. Along the way he will accomplish other firsts, breaking the sound barrier and records that have stood for nearly 50 years.

"It's not a question of the world records," Fournier wrote by e- mail message through an interpreter from his base in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. "What is important are what the results from the jump will bring to the safety of the conquest of space. However, the main question that is being asked today by all scientists is, 'Can a man survive when crossing the sound barrier?'"

In the past two weeks, his 40-member team has assembled at the launching site about an hour and a half northwest of Saskatoon. The remote Canadian plains were picked after the French authorities denied permission to hold the jump there because of safety concerns.

Fournier will face plenty of perils. Above 12,000 meters, or 40,000 feet, there is not enough oxygen to breathe. There is a risk of embolism in which a blood clot could travel to the brain or lungs and kill him. And just 20 kilometers up, air pressure is so low that blood begins to boil, said Henri Marotte, a professor of physiology at the University of Paris, and a member of Fournier's team.

"If the human body were exposed at very high altitude, the loss of consciousness is very fast, in five seconds," Marotte said. "Brain damage, in three or four minutes." To protect against such a harsh environment, Fournier's gondola is sealed, pressurized and equipped with oxygen. A specially constructed pressure suit and sealed helmet with oxygen will allow him to survive during free fall.

"Another problem is decompression sickness," Marotte said. "You have the same problem with nitrogen as divers who go too quickly from deep to the surface." To prevent what underwater divers call "the bends," Fournier will breathe pure oxygen for two to three hours before liftoff.

Simply launching his balloon will pose a number of difficulties. Fournier has attempted his feat twice already and been foiled by technical and weather-related problems. The most recent attempt, in 2003, failed when his balloon ruptured before takeoff.

Despite such bad luck, Fournier said he was not nervous. He has been preparing physically and mentally for years, making more than 8,000 jumps. "I got to say that I'm so excited," he said. "It's my dream coming true. It represents 20 years of work and sacrifices."

The quest began for Fournier in September 1988 when the French space agency selected him for a bold project: to free fall and parachute from near-space. The mission would test the potential for astronauts to escape without a spacecraft in the event of an emergency. Only two years earlier the U.S. space agency's Challenger shuttle disaster killed seven astronauts.

But the mission never got off the ground; four months after Fournier was picked to take part, the French space program folded. His resolve to make the jump only grew, and in 1992, he retired from the military to pursue the project privately. To pay for training and equipment, he has sold his house and most of his belongings. Together with private donations, he has spent $19 million.

On the verge of his dream, a British jumper would like to beat him to it. Whether Fournier succeeds or fails, Steve Truglia, a 45- year-old movie stuntman and former British Special Forces member, said he planned a similar jump over the United States in July. "Whatever he does I can beat," said Truglia, who holds a British record, 249 feet, for an underwater free dive on a single breath.

Marotte said Fournier would be in free fall for eight minutes. He would exceed the speed of sound, more than 700 miles hour, in the first 40 seconds, eventually approaching 1,000 miles per hour. His fall rate would slow at lower altitudes because of increasing resistance as the atmosphere thickened. At about 20,000 feet he would open his parachute.

If the jump succeeds, he will set four records: a speed record for the fastest free fall; a record for the highest altitude for a human balloon flight; a record for the longest free fall; and of course, a record for the highest parachute jump.

The highest balloon jump so far was performed in 1960 by Joe Kittinger, a U.S. Air Force test pilot who leaped from 102,800 feet, and reached speeds in excess of 600 miles per hour before opening his chute at 18,000 feet. He was back on Earth in less than 14 minutes. Reached by phone at his home outside Orlando, Florida, Kittinger, 79, said he was surprised his mark had stood for 48 years.

Fournier and Kittinger correspond through e-mail. "I told him many years ago, it's very hostile," Kittinger said. "You're in a vacuum, and you're whole life is dependent on the pressure suit working properly. If the pressure suit fails, you die."