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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Sky High

Skydiver Felix Baumgartner will enter the record books for his leap this month from Stratos, a capsule that lifted him 24 miles above the New Mexican desert, capturing world attention – but it took an Antelope Valley company to get him there. The one-of-a-kind capsule, carried into space by a giant helium balloon, was built by Sage Cheshire Aerospace, a Lancaster aerospace company with expertise in metal and composites fabrication that also makes movie props such as the Batmobile. Five days after the historic Oct. 14 leap, sponsored by Austrian energy drink maker Red Bull GbmH, the Stratos capsule sat in Sage Cheshire’s warehouse. Its round door was rolled back to expose an interior on which were still attached instructions for the only passenger who ever sat inside. Sage Cheshire, which counts large defense contractors, small plane makers and Hollywood production companies among its clients, is now basking in the publicity for its part in the sky dive. Art Thompson, the company’s co-founder and president, believes Sage Cheshire has particularly benefited where it counts – with officials at the highest levels of the Defense Department and aerospace industry. “We took many of them by surprise. We are the little aerospace company that could,” said Thompson, whose company has just 25 employees. Baumgartner’s jump broke a 52-year record for highest free fall and put him at a top speed of Mach 1.24 – faster than the speed of sound. “Many of the ground crew heard the sonic boom occur which is pretty impressive,” said Thompson, who served as technical project director for the Stratos program. Getting Baumgartner to such an altitude was no easy task. Fabrication on the capsule began in early 2008 and all its parts, except for the liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen tanks, were made by Sage Cheshire. The single seat is a modified version of what’s used in racecars; the metal guards on the 86 switches used to control cameras and engineering functions are the same design used on the space shuttles. But the most innovative part of the capsule is the round hinge-less door on rollers kept in place by the tens of thousands of pounds of pressure at high altitude. Inscribed on the inside frame were words of Thompson’s choosing: “This door is the passage to the tallest step in the world.” As far as Thompson knows, no similar type of door exists in the world. “From the reaction of NASA and the Air Force they were completely blown away by it,” he boasted. Red Bull owns the Stratos capsule, which will likely never fly again. Red Bull and Sage Chesire declined to say how much each put toward the project, but Thompson said his company would break even. Plywood mockup Baumgartner and Thompson first worked together when Sage Cheshire built a pair of carbon wings that the sky diver used during a 2003 free fall across the English Channel. Two years later, Baumgartner, who lives in Europe, called Thompson about going after the sky dive record set by Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger, who jumped from 102,000 feet in 1960. Baumgartner wanted suggestions about how to do it. There were two ways to Thompson’s thinking – either jump from a capsule carried by a balloon or jump from a space plane. It turned out the plane would cost more, and the vehicles in development at the time would not allow a man in a pressurized suit and parachute to exit such a plane. So Thompson consulted with aerospace professionals who had been around aircraft and spacesuits their entire careers, among them Mike Todd, a former Lockheed engineer who is an expert on pressurized suits, and Rick Searfoss, a former Space Shuttle commander and then-chief judge of the Ansari X-Prize, which offered $10 million for the first private manned spacecraft to reach space twice in two weeks. In 2007, Baumgartner decided he wanted to pursue the project, and Thompson made a plywood mock-up of a capsule he designed with a four-foot opening. Todd modified a pressurized suit worn by pilots of the U-2 spy plane for Baumgartner to test. Also on the team assembled by Red Bull, was Kittinger and Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon and professor in aerospace medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. Clark’s wife was a crewmember killed when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in February 2003. Work began on the capsule in early 2008 and was completed four years later, including a nine-month break, with everyone at Sage Cheshire pitching in. The capsule is composed of four distinct parts – a round pressure sphere made of fiberglass and epoxy, protected by a cage made from welded aircraft tubing and covered by another fiberglass shell. The bottom is two-inch thick aluminum covered by a fiberglass composite to absorb impact. Fully assembled, Stratos stands 9 ½ feet tall with a base diameter of 8 feet. It weighed 3,000 pounds with Baumgartner inside. By comparison the Mercury capsule Freedom 7 that took Alan Shepherd for a sub-orbital flight in 1961 was 9 feet tall with a base diameter of 6 feet and weighed about the same. From the start, Thompson treated Stratos as a test flight program with five flights total – two unmanned and three manned. Baumgartner first went up in the capsule in March 2012 with the second flight in July. The third flight was set for Oct. 9 until technical glitches and high winds delayed it to Oct. 14 – coincidentally the 65th anniversary of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 jet. Live stream The leap was no mere stunt on the part of Baumgartner, an experienced parachutist. Data collected from the jump is expected to aid in understanding the effects of high-altitude falls on the human body and in developing pressurized suits worn in emergency jumps from aircraft and possibly sub-orbital space vehicles. Sage Cheshire, meanwhile, benefitted from a live stream of the jump that drew an audience of more than 8 million to see the company’s work in action. “I never imagined it would turn the marketing world on its head,” Thompson said. The attention given to the company may result in demand for the expertise his staff has in engineering; metal forming, assembly and cutting; and carbon composite fabrication. Work for other aerospace customers includes building an avionics tail cone for Raytheon Co.; a camera/parachute pylon attached to the X-37, an unmanned space vehicle from Boeing; and a cargo pod for Cessna Aircraft Co. Thompson’s side business in the media and entertainment industry, A2ZFX Inc., has not only made the Batmobile and other props for 1997’s “Batman and Robin” but for other movies too, including “Die Hard 4.” It also makes hundreds of marketing vehicles for Red Bull, which feature an oversized version of the drink attached to the top of a Mini Cooper. “I would hope that our accomplishments will translate into additional business and future programs,” Thompson said. Still, he is most interested in the long-term changes the Stratos project can bring to the aerospace industry. After all, Kittinger’s record jump in 1960 led to developments of automatic opening parachutes, a technology still in use today. “My goal is that what we learned from Stratos will benefit people for the next 52 years,” he said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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