Image: Fournier in capsule
Big Jump
French skydiver Michel Fournier sits within the small pressurized capsule that will protect him against ultraviolet rays and the chill during his ascent to an altitude of 130,000 feet. Totally controlled from Earth, the capsule contains an oxygen supply, a control system and flight data recording instruments.
By Senior space writer
updated 7/13/2006 12:29:10 PM ET 2006-07-13T16:29:10

Frenchman Michel Fournier is readying himself and his equipment to attempt a record-setting free fall from the stratosphere.

Dubbed "The Big Jump," Fournier is eyeing next month for his supersonic free fall from about 130,000 feet (40 kilometers) — roughly 25 miles above Earth. The dive from a balloon-carried gondola is slated to take place above the plains of Saskatchewan in Canada.

The 62-year-old Fournier is an experienced parachutist, pilot and former military officer. He hopes his ultra-sky dive will contribute to the development of future technologies and the safety of stratospheric flight — specifically by astronauts in high-altitude emergencies that are outfitted with the proper survival equipment.

In September 2002 and then again in August 2003, Fournier’s stratospheric high-dive over Canada was thwarted by weather and balloon problems. Over the last two years, the Big Jump team has worked on technical issues, ordering a new balloon, and awaiting the next inversion of jet streams over Canada this August.

Record-setting fall
The Big Jump equipment is principally composed of a huge Russian-supplied stratospheric balloon and the specially crafted gondola. To ascend to jump height will take some 3 hours. The gondola shelters Fournier during ascent. It also is loaded with flight instruments: navigation equipment, oxygen bottles, radio gear, video recorders and a Global Positioning System satellite tracking device.

If successful, Fournier will beat four world parachuting records from the border of space:

  • Altitude record for free fall
  • Altitude record for human balloon flight
  • Time record for longest free fall
  • Speed record for fastest free fall — breaking the sound barrier in the process

After the separation of the balloon and at the time of Fournier’s jump, the gondola will descend by parachutes. The base of the gondola is equipped with shock absorbers for a safe touchdown back on the ground.

Fournier will be wearing a spacesuit made of new synthetic material fabricated by the Textile Institute of France. The apparel is designed to maintain the thermal balance of the wearer’s body during the Big Jump, yet is light enough to enhance Fournier’s maneuverability during the plunge to Earth.

Stepping out into thin air
There’s history to be set and broken by Fournier.

On Aug. 16, 1960, Capt. Joseph Kittinger jumped into the record books after his dive from a height of 102,800 feet (31,334 meters). That jump set records that still stand today — the highest parachute jump, the longest free fall and the fastest speed ever attained by a human through the atmosphere. But somewhat in contention was Kittinger’s use of a small stabilization parachute during his record-setting fall.

Roger Eugene Andreyev, a Russian, is noted as holding the world’s freefall record of 80,325 feet (24,483 meters), set on Nov. 1, 1962.

In spotlighting the upcoming skydiving attempt, French astronaut Jean-François Clervoy explained that Fournier "will fulfill in a way one of my fantasies as an astronaut … which was always to ‘walk back home’ from space." He stated that Fournier is to be admired for the human dimensions of the solo exploit, because ultimately he will be the only person onboard the gondola to decide to step out into thin air and take the gigantic step.

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