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Alan Eustace
Former Google executive Alan Eustace recounts his record-setting jump from the stratosphere at the University of Washington, with a photo of his descent in the background. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

One year after setting the world altitude record for a jump from the stratosphere, former Google executive Alan Eustace says the sky isn’t the limit – and neither is his record.

“There’s no reason you can’t go higher,” Eustace told GeekWire today after a talk at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering. The event was part of the UW School of Computer Science and Engineering’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Eustace, a longtime airplane pilot who retired from his post as Google’s senior vice president for knowledge in March, took on the self-financed “StratEx” skydiving mission to follow through on his passion for adventure and spaceflight. (He declined to tell how much the adventure cost him, other than to say “it was more than it should have cost.”)

The record-setting ride on Oct. 24, 2014, began with Eustace in a custom-made pressure suit, dangling from the end of a high-altitude balloon as it rose up from Roswell, N.M. Over the course of two and a half hours, he went into the stratosphere, up to an altitude of 135,890 feet (25.7 miles, or 41.4 kilometers).

“You can really start to see the beautiful Earth below, see the darkness of space,” he recalled during today’s talk.

At the top of the ride, Eustace cut himself loose and plunged back toward Earth at a velocity that peaked at 822 mph, faster than the speed of sound. His parachutes opened on cue after four and a half minutes of free fall. Fourteen minutes later, he came down in a remote area of eastern New Mexico. The touchdown point was 70 miles from the launch point, and just a mile away from his projected target.

“I never got a single scratch,” Eustace said.

His altitude surpassed the 128,100-foot record that had been set just two years earlier when Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner took a highly publicized jump from a pressurized capsule above New Mexico. Baumgartner’s record as the world’s fastest skydiver (with a top speed of 843.6 mph) still stands, but barely.

Eustace said the experience had much in common with scuba diving – for example, he had to pre-breathe pure oxygen before his ascent, in order to purge the nitrogen from his bloodstream.

But it’s also analogous to spaceflight. Eustace’s pressurized suit was built by Paragon Space Development Corp. and longtime spacesuit manufacturer ILC Dover, which makes the suits worn by U.S. spacewalkers at the International Space Station. The StratEx team also had to devise an innovative system for deploying Eustace’s drogue chute without having it get tangled up, and a control system that would work even if he passed out on the way down.

“We’re not counting on me being a great skydiver,” Eustace said. “We’re counting on the technology saving me.”

Eustace said the systems that came together for his flight could work for even higher jumps. However, there’s a limit to how high balloons can fly. Most high-altitude balloons don’t rise as high as his balloon did, and the literature suggests that the highest-flying weather balloon went no higher than 173,890 feet (32.9 miles, or 53 kilometers) in 2002.

“If you have some other mechanism, 200,000 would be easy,” Eustace said. “I think you probably could do it.”

For years, thrill-seekers have talked about the prospects for space diving – a feat that would involve stepping out of a suborbital rocket ship and plunging to Earth at supersonic speeds. The concept even provided a plot twist for the movie “Star Trek Into Darkness” and inspired product development efforts at Orbital Outfitters and Sol-X.

But don’t expect Eustace to give it a try. He said his flying days are over, in part because the pressure suit has been given over to the Smithsonian and the StratEx team is now focusing on World View Enterprises’ plan to put tourists on stratospheric balloon flights. And then there’s the matter of his marriage.

“I don’t have the team, I don’t have the suit, and my wife would divorce me,” he said.

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