17 Oct 2012 10:42
Packing up the nearly 30 million cubic foot balloon after landing.
The crush pads at the bottom of the capsule protected the rest of the body. The side panel was removed by the crew for inspections. Photo: Jon Wells
Tracking the capsule's route on its way up to 128,100 ft
ATA recovery crew. Mission complete. Time to pack up the capsule. Photo: Jon Wells
Capsule heading home. Photo: Jon Wells
“Joe Kittinger’s gondola in 1960 was like a Model T – practical and very durable…with very sophisticated, sensitive equipment and all the ‘luxuries’ of cutting-edge technology. Our Red Bull Stratos capsule was more like a modern supercar. From every standpoint, including a technical one, it really did its job,” Jon Wells, Capsule Crew Chief.
You might say the pressurized capsule is Jon Wells’ other child. He along with the Sage Cheshire crew put in years of long days and late nights perfecting the capsule’s functionality and durability.
Once the recovery crew spotted the floating capsule east of Roswell, New Mexico on Oct. 14, Jon Wells & Travis Moore ran to its side for inspections. As it turned out the capsule landed in very good condition. There are 7 layers in the capsule’s crush pads located at its base. That was more than enough cushion to protect the integrity of the capsule.
So by now you may be wondering how the balloon and capsule make it back to earth, and what will happen next. Here’s the process:
Shortly after Felix Baumgartner safely jumped and the Mission Control team determined the balloon and capsule were over a suitable open area, Mission Control remotely triggered the release of the capsule from the balloon.
The capsule parachute, which had been incorporated in the ‘flight train’ between the capsule and the balloon, immediately deployed. ‘Reefing’ (restraining) fabric around the circumference of the parachute held it to 17 feet / 5 meters in diameter for the initial part of the descent, allowing it to fall quickly (about 2,000 feet / 610 meters per minute). At an altitude of 20,000 feet 6.096 meters, the reefing was automatically released by a barometric sensor, allowing the canopy to expand to its full 100 feet / 30 meters in diameter so that the capsule would descend more slowly (estimated about 6 meters per second) with minimum swaying. Its descent took about 24 minutes.
The capsule’s landing area could not have been more ideal: flat, open area a bit further than 55 miles / 88 kilometers east of the launch site. Touchdown was gentle - less than 3 Gs (3x the force of gravity). The capsule softly rolled onto its back, with the door facing the sky.
According to design, as the capsule fell away from the balloon in the stratosphere, a cable tore a ‘gore’ (panel) from the balloon, releasing its (nontoxic) helium. The empty plastic envelope fell to earth, passing the capsule and landing about 15 minutes later about 7 miles / 11 kilometers west of the capsule.
A crew of twelve personnel were waiting to recover the equipment. Together they formed a convoy of five trucks and an all-terrain vehicle. Thanks to the flight path predictions of meteorologist Don Day, visual tracking via ground-based optical systems, and GPS trackers, the team was within 300 yards of the capsule when it landed.
The team believes they heard Baumgartner break the sound barrier as they waited for the equipment to descend. “We heard a sound like a sonic boom,” said Jon Wells. “A lot of us are from aerospace backgrounds and we looked at each other, practically in disbelief. We know that sound.”
On arrival, the team first shut off the liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen systems in the capsule. Jon took photos of the ‘switchology’ – the switch configuration of the capsule’s instrumentation and the oxygen and nitrogen quantities and pressure, to document the exact measurements at landing.
Next, the crew shut down the capsule’s system of 15 cameras and retrieved the camera data. Then the crew from Sage Cheshire Aerospace, which built the capsule, completed the final step by shutting down the rest of the systems and overall capsule power.
Next, balloon retrieval. The crew drove the 7 miles / 11 kilometers to the balloon and essentially lassoed 40 acres of material weighing 3,708 pounds / 1682 kilograms into a large open truck within about 45 minutes.
It’s all in a day’s work. The capsule and balloon crews arrived back at the Roswell launch site at about 5:00 pm local time, seven and a half hours after Baumgartner’s takeoff, and about 21 hours after most of the crew had arrived at the airfield to begin launch preparations the night before.
The capsule and balloon are returning to the mission’s technical hub at Sage Cheshire Aerospace in Lancaster, California. While some of the camera data was downloaded immediately in Roswell, more will be extracted at FlightLine Films in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Temperature, pressure, and other data from the capsule recorders will be analyzed for months to come, and the information will be shared with the science community.
Tags: Red Bull Stratos, balloon, capsule, landing, recovery, ATA Aerospace, Sage Cheshire Aerospace, Jon Wells