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How working at Google led this man to jump from the stratosphere

Imagine free-falling to Earth, hurtling down like a sack of potatoes going faster than the speed of sound, with some weird light illuminating your path.

Alan Eustace, stratospheric explorer, during a test jump
Source: 14 Minutes From Earth
Alan Eustace, stratospheric explorer, during a test jump

Normally the next step would be suddenly waking up. But what might be someone else's dream was Alan Eustace's reality.

Eustace, 57, spent 13 years working at Google before this death-defying leap from the stratosphere. In doing so he crushed three world records while breaking the sound barrier. But all that aside, the natural question here is — why? Is this the nerd's version of a midlife crisis or Google's in-disguise man of steel?

Turns out: neither.

The son of an aerospace engineer, Alan grew up "immersed in Apollo missions." It's no wonder that drew him to all things space and science. An engineer, pilot and sky diver, his skill diversity was just right for Google — arguably the world's largest repository of knowledge and incubator of unthinkable ideas.

As Google's senior vice president of knowledge, much of Alan's day job was overseeing engineering and development efforts in maps, search and research. While still at Google, he became part of the "StratEx" project.

StratEx was conceived to create an inexpensive, reusable and safe way to explore the stratosphere.

Until StratEx, the only way to get to the stratosphere was in a heavy, cumbersome, expensive, complex and potentially dangerous capsule — the technology first used nearly 60 years ago.

Enter space technologists.

The team created a spacesuit that would allow Alan to safely dive through the stratosphere. ILC Dover, which created all the Apollo mission suits, made its first commercial suit for Alan.

This suit also separated Alan's jump from the much-publicized Red Bull–backed-effort by Austrian sky-diver Felix Baumgartner. Red Bull used a specially designed pressurized capsule technology versus a space suit. The size, weight and complexity of the capsule required a much larger balloon to go to an altitude that was more than a mile lower than the StratEx record.

Sunrise from the stratosphere
Source: 14 Minutes from Earth
Sunrise from the stratosphere

RedBull also invested heavily in marketing and promoting the project as a space jump. StratEx was privately financed as a scientific endeavor and created an entirely new stratospheric launch system, and a new parachute system designed to stabilize the pilot's descent.

For StratEx, carefully avoiding publicity to let the team stay focused on the science and engineering was mission critical.

That's until "14 Minutes From Earth," a new documentary that showcases Alan's 14-minute journey back to Earth.

It chronicles the journey to October 21, 2014. Just after 7 a.m. that morning in the New Mexico desert, Alan was launched — attached to an enormous gas-filled balloon — and ascended 135,891 feet over two hours into the blackness of near-space.

After clearance with ground control, Alan was released from the balloon, falling faster than the speed of the sound. After falling for 123,303 feet over four and a half minutes, Alan opened his parachute for the final 10-minute journey back down to Earth. The entire trip from the stratosphere back down to the ground took a little over 14 minutes.

The balloon was equipped with a variety of fail-safe mechanisms to rip holes in its thin plastic skin. Wind conditions and terrain were taken into account by ground control to determine when to rip the balloon, so that it landed safely without harming people or property on the ground. The StratEx team collected and recycled the balloon.

So where does this endeavor go from here?

The technology developed during the StratEx project was proven to be so successful that it is being used to push the boundaries of what is possible in space exploration.

Currently in use for previously impossible unmanned climate and communications missions, the next frontier for the technology will be commercially accessible manned missions and potential uses for high-altitude emergency escapes.