Published May 26, 2008
NORTH BATTLEFORD, Saskatchewan – A French skydiver has been forced to delay plans to make history by jumping from the stratosphere above Canada.
Michel Fournier, 64, had planned Monday to take to the sky in a capsule attached to a massive helium balloon and then step out and free fall 130,000 feet.
The manager of the launch, Dale Sommerfeldt, said the attempt had been called off, but it was not immediately clear why. It was not yet clear if another attempt would be made Tuesday.
Some members of Fournier's team had said earlier there were troubles with the capsule, but there was no official confirmation.
The capsule was taken back into an airport hanger and Fournier was seen leaving the launch site.
Fournier, a former army paratrooper with more than 8,000 jumps under his belt, eventually hopes to bring back data that will help astronauts and others survive in the highest of altitudes.
He wants to also break the record for the fastest and longest free fall, the highest parachute jump and the highest balloon flight.
He will be three times higher than a commercial jetliner. A mountain climber would have to ascend the equivalent of four Mount Everests stacked one on top of the other.
He must breathe oxygen for two hours before he goes up in the balloon and the ascent takes another two-and-a-half hours.
Fournier tested his equipment on the weekend.
Sommerfeldt is among an army of technicians, data crunchers, balloon and weather specialists who have arrived at North Battleford, a city of 14,000 near the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary, 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. 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 earlier Monday.
"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 932 mph — 1.7 times the speed of sound — smashing through the sound barrier, shock waves buffeting his body, before finally deploying his chute about 6,000 meters above the prairie wheat fields.
When he does, if he does, the man whose record he is trying to eclipse will be sitting at his home in Altamonte Springs, Florida, near Orlando, waiting for news.
Joe Kittinger set the record almost 50 years ago, in 1960. As a U.S. Air Force captain, he leapt from a balloon at 101,000 feet, about three-quarters of the height Fournier is now shooting for — as a research experiment for the space program.
Kittinger, 79, now retired but working as a writer and consultant while still flying balloons and planes, said Fournier keeps in touch by e-mail.
"What I told him from the very beginning was that it's a very hostile environment needing elaborate protection and equipment and a good team," Kittinger said in an interview from his home.
"If the pressure suit fails, you die very quickly. It's not simply just making a skydive."
Fournier has made the jump his life's work at a cost of nearly $20 million.
He got started after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 — with some of the astronauts surviving 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 canceled soon after, he decided to continue his research privately.
He had planned to make the jump in his native France, but the government denied him permission because it believed the project was too dangerous.
He then came to North Battleford, an agricultural and transportation hub northwest of Saskatoon. The surrounding area has few lakes and lots of open land in addition to an underused airport, which serves as the perfect launch point.
By the time he begins his mission, 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 out to pierce the sky in temperatures plunging to -85 degrees F 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.
Kittinger says should he reach the peak altitude, he will be humbled by a panorama as spectacular as it is deadly.
"It's beautiful," he said. "But it's very hostile."