PART 1: FRANCE AND CANADA
A french former paratrooper with no family ties, michel fournier almost made Le Grand Saut. Then
By Bruce Grierson
In the middle of the plate-flat Canadian prairie, not far from where writer Raymond Carver hunted geese, a flurry of activity broke out last September around a small, rural airfield. Here was ground zero for French skydiver Michel Fournier's audacious attempt to ride the pressurized gondola of a helium balloon to 130,000 feet-the cusp of space, the highest anyone has ever gone without a rocket-and topple out earthward. Diving into a near-perfect vacuum he would, in 31 seconds, hit 670 mph and slam into the sound barrier, the first human being to do so with his body. If all went well-a big if-he'd free-fall for just under 5 minutes before his chute delivered him to the ground.
The helium truck had moved into position in the adjacent canola field near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The doors to a hangar yawned open, revealing a phone-booth-size, airtight gondola ready to be moved onto the flatbed launch truck. An ambulance stood by in the event of catastrophic failure of any components-the balloon, the gondola, the parachute couplings, the oxygen supply, the partial-pressure suit, the supple oversuit designed to shield Fournier from freezing atmospheric temperatures. After two weeks of dashed hopes, it looked as if Le Grand Saut -The Big Jump-just might happen. All the ghoulish handicapping of Fournier's chances of coming down alive had ceased.
The man dubbed Monsieur Mach One paced about in his skin-tight, military-green spacesuit whistling Que Sera, Sera, looking vaguely amphibious. He was walking a bit stiffly. Could've been the suit-they're notoriously uncomfortable. Could've been the rectal probe he wore to monitor his internal pressure and temperature as the capsule rises beyond the atmosphere under an ultrathin polyethylene balloon envelope that would swell, in that rarefied environment, to 18 million cubic feet. And though you'll never find more sangfroid in one 5-foot 7-inch package, it could have been nerves.
Then the bad news. The wind had changed direction and was picking up. The launch was postponed again. Fournier's entourage huddled and kindled some locker room mojo. "Michel hip hip hoorah! Hip hip hoorah!" Fournier looked a bit embarrassed: "Save it until after I jump." He was working hard to contain his emotional investment in the moment. The past 14 years of his life-which have seen him log more than 8,300 skydives and set the French altitude record of 39,000 feet-had sharpened to a point.
Ever since the 1989 cancellation of S38-a French Ministry of Defense initiative designed to see whether a parachutist could safely descend from 125,000 feet (roughly the height at which the space shuttle Challenger exploded)-Fournier has been obsessed with the idea of a record-breaking, stratospheric jump. At the time he was a paratrooper in the French army, but he left the military in 1992 and sold everything: his house, his furniture, his car, his war medals and his arms collections. With the cash he bought the defunct S38 hardware and privately carried on what the Ministry of Defense had started.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.