An aerospace engineer’s diary chronicles three years in the life of the interdisciplinary team that enabled the world’s highest sky dive.
In 2011, Alan Eustace, a pilot and avid sky diver, wanted to make a record-setting dive from 135,890 feet up. Then, as now, Eustace was a senior vice president at Google, so he was well-funded and well-connected enough to make his dream a reality. Debut author Leidich, a career engineer, helped design the spacesuit that Eustace would wear, and somewhere along the line, he became a kind of historian for the StratEx project. He explains the stakes that were involved: “At the time we started this endeavor, four people had ascended to the stratosphere with the intention of free-falling down. Two of them died.” For three years, the team worked to secure funding for, design, and test the balloon that would carry Eustace to the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere and create the suit and parachute that would enable him to safely return. Leidich’s book truly conveys the reality of the engineering process: “Design is meticulous and slow,” the author writes. “It is an intentionally dry and sober process of double, triple, and quadruple checking.” His account is replete with technical detail and doesn’t shy away from the difficulties that he and his cohorts faced. There were moments when tempers flared, office politics came into play, and team members found themselves wondering who was in charge. Leidich even details his own brush with death, when a test of the suit almost resulted in his suffocation. For all its drama and historic value, though, the book doesn’t say much about why the scientists and engineers of StratEx did what they did. Leidich very briefly notes that projects like StratEx are a steppingstone for an eventual journey to Mars, and the book would have been well-served by expanding on that idea. The author does makes a convincing, if somewhat frightening, argument for private space travel, though, when he remarks that only those who are willing to accept the possibility of death will succeed—because riskier projects are more affordable. Of NASA, he says that “a human-carrying spaceship made to their specifications cannot be made with the money and time they have.” This assertion alone could have supported an entire chapter.
An essential guide for any scientist or engineer hoping to attempt a feat of derring-do.