A 62-year-old Frenchman is giving his attempt on the world free-fall record one last try in the skies above Saskatchewan. Michel Fournier has spent $13.25 million trying to jump from 25 miles above the earth's surface and break the world free-fall record set by USAF test pilot Joe Kittinger in 1960. But first he has to get up there. The retired colonel from the French army reserves last gave it a go in 2003, and was sitting in his insulated capsule just minutes away from take-off when the balloon that was going to take him up to his jump level exploded. Now, with a new, three-ply balloon that is, according to the manager of the Canadian side of operations, Claude-Jean Hurel, "really solid," although it has yet to carry a human being, Michel has a three-week window in which to make the jump. Thank heavens it is always in August, when there is no other news to write about.
Fournier has been training for the free-fall attempt since 1988 when, as a 41-year-old, he was selected to be on the HermÃ¨s shuttle, part of the French national space program which was canceled due to budget cuts. Undeterred, Fournier left the military and raised money by selling off all his worldly possessions in order to buy the abandoned equipment from the French government.
Aided and abetted by various aerospace scientists, Fournier has kept rigorously in shape, making over 8,500 parachute drops, spending time in hyperbaric pressure chambers and refrigeration units—even keeping his hands and feet in icy water to get used to the sub-zero conditions he will have to endure. At 40,000 metres, the temperature is around minus 100Âº centigrade, and the air is so thin, Fournier must inhale pure oxygen for hours beforehand, in order to get rid of the nitrogen in his blood.
Once the balloon has taken his capsule up to the jump height, our intrepid sexagenarian must leap head first out of the receptacle and free-fall for seven minutes. When he hits 1,000 metres, he pulls the chute—if he still can—and enjoy a leisurely descent of eight minutes. Before ripcord time, he will be breaking the sound barrier at speeds up to 932 mph, and enduring temperatures as low as minus 115Âº C.
Like many young boys, Fournier has always wanted to be an astronaut. "My passion has always been to fly, to jump," he told an interviewer. "My objective is test out a way to save astronauts." Perhaps you should start with yourself, mate. Bonne Chance, Michel, and let's hope you don't run out of puff before you've finished blowing up the balloon. [Canada.com]