This is the story of a man who has dreamed since childhood of travelling into space. He has fought on a daily basis for almost 20 years to achieve his objective: to jump from 40,000-meters – 7.25 minutes of freefall dressed with a stratospheric suit. In doing so, he would break 4records: 1) freefall from a record altitude, 2) highest human flight with a balloon, 3) the record amount of time in freefall and 4) fastest freefall speed. A soldier by training, Michel Fournier plans to make the most of the experience: ‘before jumping, I’ll definitely spare a few seconds just for myself’. This big jump remains first and foremost a scientific experiment that will allow advances to be made in the domain of space tourism. This is a portrait of a man out of the ordinary. Not for those afraid of heights…
Context of the big jump
In 1986, the accident of the American space shuttle, Challenger, was one of the most shocking facts in the search for space conquest. The Challenger NASA shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after take-off, leaving 7 mission team astronauts dead. At this time, the French ministry of defense lent its support to the 38,000-meters freefall jump project, christened ‘S38’. The aim of this study was to develop the technology to save passengers in spaceships. One year later, Michel Fournier was one of the three finalists selected for the mission. The other two applying for the project were astronauts. In the same year (1988), a mannequin was dropped from 40,000 meters by the CNES to the French town Aire-sur-l’Adour. The minister, hampered by a lack of financing, decided to withdraw his support from the ‘S38’ project. In 1992, Michel Fournier left the army’s active service to take up the project again – this time on its own. In that year he set a French freefall record of 12,000-meters. In 2008, and after years of technological developments, Michel Fournier attempted a 40,000-metre free fall. Unfortunately, this attempt failed after a technical problem allowed the balloon to detach itself and fly off on its own, leaving Fournier’s gondola firmly on the ground. He then planned to jump over the Crau plain in France, in 2010. But France refused to allow him to jump over its territory citing security reasons. He was then invited to do the big jump in Canada. Each attempt costs about 600,000 Euros and Michel Fournier had to fight to raise the sum. He received help from a number of countries besides France, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, India, China and Russia. Due to the inversion of the direction of stratospheric winds that induces therisk of laminar winds, the big jump can only be made during two annual opening windows during the year: one in mid-May to mid-June, and the other from mid-August to mid-September. If the money is forthcoming, the big jump should happen during the next annual opening windows , an event that would allow him to beat the still unsurpassed record of his friend Joe Kittinger. Attained on 16 April 1960 from a height of 31,333, Kitinger’s record has remained unequalled as around twenty projects that tried to improve upon it were all aborted.
Michel Fournier, parachutist by training
How many people do you know who, at 67 years of age get up at 3am for a jog and spend their Sunday’s doing 3 to 4 parachute jumps? This, however, is Michel Fournier’s rhythm, week in week out.
Michel Fournier is the very definition of a passionate man. He has, since his early childhood, always wanted to be an astronaut. Planes also fascinated him and he remembers the first time when he saw a Messer Smith 262 twinjet – the first ever operational fighter plane with a jet engine. But he quit school at the age of thirteen. A high level sportsman, our man is multidisciplinary and decided to join the army. Jump pilot, he participated in triathlons, Olympic firearms marksmanship, orientation races, marathons and semi-marathons and of course his great passion remained parachuting. He was quickly noticed at the start of his military career:
The ‘extreme’ attracted me the most, the always higher, faster, further, more daring. This lead me to being seconded to a specialist corps that studied very high altitude jumps."
Having become reserve lieutenant colonel of the School of High Command (Ecole d’Etat Major), Michel Fournier has made over 8,700 parachute jumps – one hundred of which were at very high altitude. He is also an officer of the National Order of Merit, of the Aeronautical medal and of the Gold medal of youth and Sports. A genuine individual and full of humour, Michel Fournier lays out his vision of parachuting for us:
If you see a cow as big as a cricket you know you’re ok, if you see a cricket as big as a cow you start asking yourself questions!"
Michel Fournier has lived only for the large jump project since he decided to take it back up under his own steam. Recently married, he had previously devoted his life to this project alone. He has travelled a lot and has made a large number of sacrifices. Michel Fournier explains that tenacity, lots of experience, and good scientific knowledge are the most important aspects to giving his project the greatest chance of success.
Michel Fournier is happy to talk about his passion. He likes to tell of how he recounted his adventures to last year science classes at Clermont Ferrand in ‘Puy en Velay’ and at Vichy where he spoke of his definition of physical sciences over a dozen classes. The students had rarely shown such an interest in gravity!
For Michel Fournier: The Big Jump is not really physical, but scientific and technical above all else."
The details of his training schedule are hardly a walk in the park however… Michel Fournier follows a very specific training. Three times a year he prepares himself in a hypobaric chamber in Moscow’s star city or at Comex in Marseille. He has also undertaken flights in microgravity inside the A330 Airbus as well as exercises in a thermo-physiological chamber at the Army Health Research Centre in Grenoble. There he is placed in -150°C for 10 to 20 minutes. These exercises allow the equipment to be tested, among other things. He also had to pass the famous centrifugal test and complete his training with a large number of parachute jumps:
I did four jumps last Sunday!"
French regulation forbids jumps from over 6,000 meters altitude – the reason why Michel Fournier trains in countries other than France (Switzerland being one) where jumps from up to 10,000 meters are allowed. He does weekly parachute jumps from a height of 4,000 meters between Aix-en-Provence and Nîmes. He also receives training in how to handle stress and undergoes psychological tests. Given the scope of the projects it is only to be expected that scientists follow Michel Fournier’s training. Professors Paul Vanuxem and Henri Marotte are in charge of the scientific side of the project as well as the medical and scientific follow up on Michel Fournier’s training. Michel Fournier explains to us that his cardiologist for example teaches him to master his stress because just before jump from 40,000 meters his heart could beat at 200bpm compared to 55bpm at rest. He is learning to regulate his breathing and hyperventilation that may occur. Michel Fournier is also a yoga enthusiast.
We ask him: Is there anything you have to avoid in preparation for the big jump? Michel Fournier says he has a balanced diet but follows no specific dietary program. Diving, however, is strictly forbidden, as the human body cannot deal with hyperbaric and hypobaric alternation. He reminds us that a large number of accidents happen as tourists move from diving to flying over the area – an error not to be committed!
Considerable in-depth research has been conducted since Michel Fournier took back up the project in order to make the big jump achievable. With the support and oversight of professional scientists and technicians from France and elsewhere, this project has required research in almost all fields: vectors, aeronautical and spatial physiology, altitude constraints, equipment, measuring instruments, cold protection, sports and physical training, photographic and video material, radio transmission and so on. Over forty businesses are implicated in the big jump and the team in Canada includes around one hundred people of 5 different nationalities.
The stratospheric balloon is made of three layers of thickness and includes 1.4 tons of plastic (we were able to see a couple of samples). The balloon is 161 meters in height and 115 meters in diameter. Inflated with helium it will allow Michel Fournier – in his gondola, to reach an altitude of 40 kilometers. The balloon will be automatically destroyed after the big jump.
The S38 gondola, purchased by the army, will be used as a small spatial, pressurized vehicle that will protect Michel Fournier from UV rays, cosmic rays and the cold. It will be filled with measuring and control instruments, sound and image recording equipment (five cameras and video cameras).
Once equipped, the weight of the gondola will be around 620 kg. With a height of 3 meters and a diameter of 1.1 meters, the gondola will be entirely controlled from the ground.
During his freefall Michel Fournier will be equipped with 2 parachutes, a physiological recorder, a GPS, a Sarsat beacon and a camera that will allow images of his head and the earth to be recorded. Michel Fournier will jump without a stopwatch – “It will be inside my head’, he told us. He will have a 10,000m altimeter.
By jumping from 40,000 meters I’ll see the curve of the earth and I will be able to admire the North Pole. I’ll land on the Saskatchewan prairies in Canada."
Michel Fournier himself will be equipped with a spacesuit similar to those used by astronauts. The jumpsuits have been subject to scientific study. Michel Fournier will wear three types of clothes: the first absorbs perspiration, the second is a pressurized jumpsuit and the third protects him from the cold. The first layer is made of wool. The second stratospheric protection has a valve added – designed specifically for the 40,000-metre jump. A double pressure regulation system that runs on pure oxygen has been developed and is capable of maintaining the 18kpa survival pressure in the piece of clothing above ~22.6 hPa (the pressure at an altitude of 11,000-meters). The last layer is an outer-jumpsuit for “extreme cold” that allows humans to resist temperatures of around -110°C for 10 minutes. Last of all, Michel Fournier will wear warming gloves made of four layers yet sufficiently supple to allow him to manage the opening of the parachute. All of the equipment is pressurized using oxygen to permit good breathing. The equipment weighs 115kg in total.
The (jump) failure of 2008 allowed a number of questions to be asked and answered. It allowed us to try to envisage the new grey zones."
Officially only people who have flown above 100km above ground level – where the atmosphere begins, can say they have flown in space. In achieving his big jump at an altitude of 40km, Michel Fournier will not officially be in space then, though he will be in similar conditions (3 gas/mm3).
"I will experience the conditions of space without being there."
We will only know the exact date of the grand departure three days before it happens. Meteorological balloons will be released at the time when the annual opening windows is right for the big jump. These will collect meteorological information essential for calculating the exact trajectory of the balloon carrying the adventurer.
The timetable for D-day is timed to the minute. Preparations begin in the evening of the day before the jump to allow an early morning take-off thus avoiding turbulence as much as possible. Michel Fournier will inhale pure oxygen 4 hours before the big jump. It takes approximately 3 hours to ascend to an altitude of forty kilometers – but, he won’t have too much time to think because NASA has commissioned him to do a scientific study during this time. This consists of doing ophthalmological studies in space conditions. Michel Fournier underwent an eye operation thanks to which he managed to regain 16/10 vision in each eye. He still uses glasses to read however.
Michel Fournier will be carrying 40kg of material at the fateful moment of the big jump. The entire operation will be secured and complex procedures will be followed until the opening of the door. We ask him to explain how he will throw himself out of the gondola. Michel Fournier explains that the big jump requires a specific position to avoid spiraling downwards (he will also be equipped with a small stabilizing parachute). His hands will be placed on the edge of the gondola, his feet as close to the lip as possible. The key is to propel himself in accordance with the earth’s axis!
I will be absolutely ready; I can’t afford to make a mistake."
Then it’s off for the big jump and 7min 25s of freefall at supersonic speed! At the very beginning of the jump Michel Fournier will find himself in a perfect state of weightlessness. He will reach the maximum speed of mach 1.5 (approximately 515m/s). Arriving above the Canadian plains he will open his parachute at an altitude of 1200 meters, the automatic opening being programmed to occur at a height of 400m. He should reach the ground after 10 minutes parachute to be welcomed by a hoard of journalists and onlookers. The big jump will be retransmitted to Canada and to Bourget by two satellite links. Michel Fournier invited us to follow this event live from Bourget and we will, of course, be there in the press area on D-day. We will keep you informed…
The big jump will certainly contribute to some technological advances. Firstly, it will provide medical responses regarding human exposure to such conditions. The data will allow for the first time to better understand human exposure to extreme temperature, pressure, weightlessness and cosmic rays. The big jump has also allowed the development of new equipment for use during freefall and high-performance software to track his jump. Finally, scientific studies related to aerodynamic characteristics of transonic flow in the rarefied atmosphere will be conducted for a human in freefall. Two theses centered on this project have already been completed.
The most significant overall applications of this adventure relates to the development of spatial tourism. If for example a critical accident took place on a space shuttle, it would be possible to save astronauts in difficulty using lessons learnt from this project. Michel Fournier’s adventure will contribute to the development of techniques and the security of future stratospheric flights.
First of all however, this challenge sheds light on an adventure and the exploit of a man who has never lost sight of his goal despite the years and the difficulties – the goal of accomplishing his dream. His passion remains intact and palpable. This adventurer has even made one of the world’s richest men a little jealous: “Richard Branson invited us to his home in London” He tells us “He wanted to make the big jump his”.
This meeting left its mark on us. Here is a man who leads his life according to his passions – what a life lesson! Michel, we hope you succeed. We will be at Bourget on D-day and most importantly… make the most of the view!
Find out more: 1) Hypobarisme à propos d’un saut à 40 000 mètres par le docteur Anne-Claire Bartes, université Bordeaux2-Victor Segalen, http://www.legrandsaut.org/press/hyperbare.pdf 2) officiql sit of the big jump, http://www.legrandsaut.org/index.php 3) Media planning, le grand saut, http://www.legrandsaut.org/press/press-media-book.pdf 4) 3i3s, international independent institute for space and satellite solutions, http://www.3i3s.org/ 5) Frenchman poised for ‘Great Leap’, a 40-kilometer-high adventure, by Matt Higgins, published Friday, May 23, 2008, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/23/world/europe/23iht-jump.4.13174642.html