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David Moreno

For months I’ve been looking forward to the release of the new James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’, due at the end of this month.

But I wasn’t aware that for many years, an Austrian skydiver had been preparing his very own ‘skyfall’, a real one. I am sure you all have seen it or, at least, heard about it.

 

After several failed attempts, it finally happened last Sunday. Felix Baumgartner became the first man to break the sound barrier, freefalling from the stratosphere, while breaking other records as well.

While it was a spectacular endeavour, it was controversial too. Critics argued that it was just a dangerous promotion stunt for the sponsor, whereas supporters claimed that the project had enormous scientific value. Some called Felix crazy; others labellled him a hero.

One thing, however, cannot be denied: Felix Baumgartner was equipped with and supported by ‘state of the art’ technology. And chemistry played a big role in it.

It’s a given that the balloon that lifted his capsule up to the incredible height of almost 39km was filled with the noble gas helium. But what about the balloon itself? It was made of many ultra thin strips (0.02 mm) of our most common plastic, polyethylene. The strips were connected by polyester-fibre load tapes that bore the whole weight of the balloon, the capsule and Felix himself.

In the capsule, Felix was sitting in the so-called pressure sphere, which was supposed to surround his body with earthlike conditions. That pressure sphere was moulded from fiberglass and polyepoxide painted with fireproof paint. The cage surrounding the pressure sphere was made from welded chrome moly. The outer shell of the capsule was foam-insulated (remember my earlier post ‘Make it warm, make it right’) skin covered in fiberglass and paint.

Finally, the part that interested me the most: the pressure suit. No such suit had ever been used for a free-fall before. It had four layers consisting of both “breathable” polytetrafluoroethylene (also known as PTFE), and flame-resistant Nomex, an aramid material developed by the American company DuPont.

Considering that so many strong materials were involved, you could almost believe that Felix was never in danger. But he was. In my view, his effort was extraordinary, both from a scientific and from a human point of view.

How could Daniel Craig possibly top Felix’s skyfall? We’ll see…