Skydiver prepares for jump from edge of space

A skydiver was making final preparations today for a 130,000 feet attempt to set the world’s highest jump.

Michel Fournier, aged 64, aims to jump from a balloon on the very edge of space wearing in a specially designed suit, helmet and parachute.

Frenchman Fournier, a former army paratrooper with more than 8,000 jumps under his belt, also wants to break the record for the fastest and longest free fall and the highest balloon flight.

He will be more than 24 miles up, three-times higher than a commercial airliner. A mountain climber would have to ascend the equivalent of four Mount Everests stacked one on top of the other.

Fournier was scheduled take to the sky early today in Canada, but his staff said the take off would be delayed by a couple of hours.

Fournier’s launch manager, Dale Sommerfeldt, admitted yesterday that the overcast skies and winds of 25 mph at the site in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, looked ominous.

“Times like this look really, really bad, but in less than 12 hours it could be completely changed,” he said.

“The forecast is a bit marginal, but we have to take the chance and wait for it. If it does change and it’s good then we’ll fly. If not, we’ll just put everything away and we’ll try again another day.”

If the launch is postponed, Sommerfeldt said they will try again tomorrow morning when the forecast looks more favourable. Ideally, the ground speed winds would be no more than 6 mph in order for the crew to launch the massive balloon.

An army of technicians, balloon and weather specialists are helping prepare for Fournier’s third attempt.

The first two – in 2002 and 2003 – ended when wind gusts shredded his balloon before it even became airborne.

This time, the balloon is three layers thick and the plan is to go up before the sun comes up when the skies are expected to be clear and, hopefully, without a breath of wind.

“We have a better balloon now than we had before and that’s what caused us problems before. So we’re hoping this time will be a success,” Sommerfeldt said.

“Right now it looks like it’s just the weather that’s going to bother us.”

It is expected to take Fournier 15 minutes just to come down, screaming through thin air at more than 900 mph – 1.7 times the speed of sound – smashing through the sound barrier, shock waves buffeting his body, before finally deploying his parachute at about 18,000 feet.

Fournier has made the jump his life’s work at a cost of nearly £10m (€12.5m).

He began after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 and some of the astronauts survived in high altitudes only to die at splashdown.

The French government decided to experiment with ejections at super-high altitudes. Fournier was chosen to do the jumping, but when the project was cancelled soon after, he decided to continue his research privately.

He had planned to make the jump in France, but the government denied him permission, saying it was too dangerous.

He then moved to North Battleford, an agriculture and transportation centre. The surrounding area has few lakes and lots of open land in addition to an under-used airport, which serves as the perfect launch point.

By zero hour, Fournier will already have been breathing pure oxygen for two hours to help his body adapt.

The balloon will then rise, taking more than two hours to reach its apex before he steps in temperatures plunging to -65 C and in pressures that, without a special suit, would quickly bring his blood to a boil.

He will be tracked with global positioning units, radar, a helicopter and a Learjet. He expects to land within a 25-mile radius south of North Battleford. If he lands unconscious, his team will have 15 minutes to get to him before his air runs out.

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