Dream: To Skydive from the Edge of Space

I had a conversation this weekend with a close friend and was reminded of how putting your dreams out into the universe increases the potential of making those dreams a reality. You never know who is listening and may have a golden nugget to help you realize those dreams. I haven’t talked publicly about this much, but my underlying dream, and driver, is to skydive from the edge of space.

To help tell this story, it is important to give a little backstory on the history of high-altitude jumps involving balloon flight and how I became interested in this type of challenge.

Project Excelsior

Erin Bonilla standing with Col. Joseph Kittinger.
Col. Joe Kittinger and myself at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in 2012.
Photo Credit: Dennis Bonilla

In the 1950’s,  Col. Joe Kittinger —a decorated U.S. Air Force war hero and Vietnam POW— joined Project Excelsior, a research project designed to test high-altitude bailouts. Project Excelsior consisted of three different test jump missions: Excelsior I in 1959 (jump from 76,400 feet / 23,300 meters), Excelsior II in 1959 (jump from 74,700 feet / 22,800 meters), and Excelsior III in 1960 (102,800 feet / 31,300 meters). Excelsior III earned Col. Kittinger records for the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest-duration drogue-fall, and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere. To accomplish these missions, Col. Kittinger travelled up to altitude in a pressure suit, onboard an open gondola, carried up by large helium balloons. Due to the weight of his parachute and other life support systems (60 lbs / 27 kg), he was in freefall back down to the Earth rather than face down like a typical skydiver. Think about that for a second. Back down, looking up at space, not seeing the Earth approaching below. Incredible.

If you are interested in learning more about Col. Kittinger’s life, check out his autobiography titled Come Up and Get Me. A stellar read about his life at war, as a test pilot, a high-altitude balloon pilot, and the many other accomplishments from his life.

Col. Kittinger has been an inspiration for me since I began skydiving in 2011 and little did I know that in the not so distant future I would get a chance to meet him in person.

The Red Bull Stratos pressure suit hanging in the background as Felix Baumgartner and Col. Joe Kittinger were interviewed by CNN at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.
Photo credit: Erin Bonilla

RED BULL STRATOS

In 2012, I had a unique opportunity to meet Col. Joe Kittinger and Felix Baumgartner—an accomplished skydiver, base jumper, and soon to be new record holder for highest skydive. Both participated in the Red Bull Stratos mission with an overall mission goal of transcending human limits. The mission involved extensive research and development in camera and communications equipment, high-altitude balloon technology, a custom pressurized capsule with life support systems, pressure suit and helmet suitable for freefall with parachute compatibility, backup safety systems, and a customized chest pack that with various sensory and biometric data collection devices. Felix went on to complete the jump from 128,100 feet (39,045 meters), reached speeds of 833.9 mph (1,342.8 km/h), and landed safely. The overall cost of this mission was estimated at $30 Million and took 7 years to accomplish.

At the time, I had just become a licensed skydiver, and was meticulously following the mission as it unfolded. On the day of the jump, I was standing in my living room, anxiously watching the livestream on my television. As I stood there, I knew this was something I wanted to do. I felt it in every ounce of my being and I knew I could pull it off. I just had no idea how to make it happen.

StratEx

In 2014, unannounced to the public, Alan Eustace⁠—a computer scientist and former Senior Vice President of Knowledge at Google⁠—ascended to 135,889 feet (41,418 meters) and fell at 822 miles per hour (1,323 km/h) to break Felix’s altitude record. What was amazing about the StratEx mission, is it did not use a capsule for the ride up to altitude. This mission was designed with an ILC Dover pressure suit suspended from a Paragon high-altitude balloon fit with an explosive device to help separate him from the balloon when it was time to jump. In addition, Alan deployed a drogue chute to help with stabilization in freefall. This mission, seemingly less expensive and less complex, only added to my growing dream of making the jump myself. World View and Paragon released a StratEx Mission Overview (PDF) paper with extensive detail on all of the systems used in the mission. I have yet to find any estimated costs of the full mission, so if one if anyone knows this number, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

If you want to learn more about Alan Eustace and the StratEx mission, check out the book titled The Wild Black Yonder.

FEMALE REPRESENTATION

Over the years, I have thought extensively about this type of skydive and the fact that no woman, on record, has accomplished one. I have always been an advocate for female representation in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM) education and this type of mission would be a perfect demonstration of all of these areas in one. Aside from the educational benefits of a female mission, it is essential to get women up there to demonstrate our physical, mental, and technical capabilities and collect valuable data on how the female body reacts in this type of environment under such extreme stressors. The more women we get up there, the more we support gender equality in this unique cross-over between the skydiving and aerospace industries.

My DREAM

I have reached a particular point in my life where all of my personal passions, career, and education are intersecting and highlighting a clearer path toward this dream. My past experience as a skydiver, working on NASA programs, space analogs, and now going into a career in space training, I have the knowledge, skillset, and drive to make it happen.

So there it is, my goal is out there for the world to see. Now to figure out all the steps in between.

Blue skies. 💙

Featured Image Credit: John Marton

About the author

Erin Bonilla

I am a curriculum developer, technical trainer, communicator, and adventurer with a passion for human space exploration and training. I am actively involved in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) educational outreach efforts and advocate for the deep connection between the arts and science education.

Add Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

By Erin Bonilla

Training Journal

Topics

Follow along!

For up-to-date happenings in my space training journey, adventure activities, and everyday life, follow along through my social media!