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SciTech Tuesday: Record Breaking High-Altitude Jump

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On Sunday morning Austrian daredevil, Felix Baumgartner, became the first skydiver to fall faster than the speed of sound.  Jumping from a capsule carried by a helium balloon 24 miles above earth, he reached an estimated speed of 833.9 mph and set the world record for greatest free fall velocity.  To survive the fall, Baumgartner wore a full pressure suit and helmet to protect his body from the low pressure air at high altitude.

High Altitude Effects on Human Physiology

Low pressure environments affect the water in the cells and tissues of the human body as well as the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to deliver oxygen to the brain.  Because the liquid and gas equilibrium decreases with pressure, Baumgartner’s suit was fully pressurized to prevent the formation of gas bubbles in the blood stream, a dangerous condition called ebullism.  His helmet supplied 100% oxygen throughout the balloon assent and freefall. At high altitude, the available oxygen pressure decreases depriving the brain and body tissues of oxygen-rich blood.

The Evolution of Oxygen Masks

The use of oxygen at high altitudes dates back to 1913 when French aviator, Georges Lagagneux, reached an altitude of 20,014 feet in a Nieuport biplane. By the end of World War I oxygen breathing systems had been accepted as necessary for pilots to fly at altitude, but little progress had been made in devising an efficient oxygen system. When the first molded latex oxygen mask was developed in 1938 by physicians at the Mayo Clinic for delivering anesthesia and oxygen to patients, applications for high altitude flight were immediately apparent. Oxygen breathing masks evolved rapidly during WWII, culminating with the A-14 in 1943, the standard mask for pilots during the second half of the war. In fact, the A-14 was so successful that revised models remained in use well into the 1980s.

Post by Annie Tête, STEM Education Coordinator

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