Dynetics Plays Role in Recent World Record Highest-Altitude Skydive

Monday January 12, 2015

Alan Eustace, senior vice president of Knowledge at Google Inc., recently broke the world record for the highest-altitude skydive, and Dynetics played a role in the mission's success. Eustace rose 135,890 feet into the stratosphere above the New Mexico desert on Oct. 24 using a balloon. He released himself and fell at supersonic speeds, smashing the altitude record that Felix Baumgartner set two years ago with his famous Red Bull Stratos "space jump." 

Dynetics became involved early in the design phase of the project, led by the Stratospheric Explorer (StratEx) team at Paragon Space Development Corporation.  Paragon asked Dynetics to perform an aerodynamic analysis on the skydiver. The team would soon discover this was no ordinary skydive - it would be a pressurized suit at high altitude and supersonic speed descending to earth in freefall. Dynetics officials said that while Dynetics' aerospace engineers typically examine missiles, bombs, launch vehicles and unmanned aerial systems, the physics remain the same, so the team accepted the challenge. 

A small team of engineers from the Dynetics Unmanned Systems and Aerodynamics Department and the Space Vehicles Department developed a plan to characterize the flowfield surrounding the skydiver in a pressurized suit to ensure Eustace could descend in a controlled manner. The team examined the aerodynamic characteristics of the proposed pressure suit design to determine whether there could be any insurmountable problems with freefall stability and control.  Dynetics' aerodynamic experts provided initial flowfield characterizations which allowed the StratEx team to make more informed decisions and address safety issues early in the system's design process.   

Engineers in the Dynetics Aerodynamics Branch (Unmanned Systems and Aerodynamics Department) who led the effort explained that one of the primary functions of an aerodynamicist is to determine the forces generated by air flow around objects. Several methods may be used to obtain these predictions, including wind tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamics (CFD). Dynetics' portion of this project was a complete CFD effort, according to the engineers. There was a concern that the weight distribution and shape of the large pack on the front of Eustace's suit would cause him to tumble. Paragon wanted to understand the aerodynamic stability and control of the system at conventional skydiving altitudes and velocities, as well as at high-altitude, supersonic speeds. The Dynetics team examined the aerodynamic forces generated on different parts of the suit (arms/legs/helmet) at the high velocities to ensure the skydiver would not be injured. 

Dynetics used a NASA-developed CFD code called "USM3D," which is employed extensively in the design of the new NASA Space Launch System, to compute the flow field around the skydiver suit in freefall. The team examined the pressures and velocities around the skydiver to determine if he would fall in a controlled manner. 

"Congratulations to the StratEx team on a successful mission," said David King, Dynetics president. "From helping people make history through fearless feats to building advanced propulsion systems to get to space, we pride ourselves on the agility of our team and our engineers' ability to apply their skills to any project. This project allowed our engineers to have some fun working on a different type of project."

Dynetics performed the preliminary aerodynamic analysis for Paragon, the prime systems integrator for the mission. Paragon was the primary designer of the complete system of launch; tracking; and recovery, landing and support elements.  For more information on the StratEx project, go to www.paragonsdc.com/stratex.

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