Upper Altitude Parachuting Survivability

I’m writing a novel, and I have a scene in mind where two of the main characters are ejected into the upper atmosphere with minimal survival equipment. I’ve tried researching the effects of upper-atmospheric exposure on human bodies, but most sources say that you need a pressure suit or else you’ll die. I know you won’t explode, but you might get the bends. You won’t freeze immediately, but you may suffer frostbite from falling through the upper atmosphere. This is science fiction, but I like to maintain a degree of verisimilitude in my writing. I’d like to have this scene seem real. Even if sci-fi tech is needed to make it work, I want it to be a sci-fi solution to a real problem, not a magic “they survive” device.

Does anyone here have any information on how a pair of people essentially parachuting from the stratosphere would fair? What equipment would they need to survive, but be seriously jacked up upon landing? How could one character fair better (primarily remaining conscious instead of passing out) than another, and what sort of damage would they suffer? How could they quickly recuperate?

They get rescued by a friendly vehicle, which dives to match their speed and pulls out with bone-crushing force, but just fast enough to prevent the heroes from splattering on the ground, so no worries about parachutes.

It might help to look into Project Manhigh and follow on tests where people did parachute from the stratosphere.

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Some, mikecurtis. Thank you. Baumgartner’s and the later Eustace jump give me great info about temperature, pressure, and the time it would take to descend (slightly less than 4.5 minutes), but they both used pressure suits.

I’ve also researched people who hike high mountains without oxygen and the few high altitude/low pressure accidents we have on record. However, most of those are “do or die” scenarios. The person passes out and is revived later, or dies, or has everything they need to survive. I can’t find records of people who, for example, ejected from a SR-71 or U2 with a compromised suit and survived, and how they did it.

To give some context - the characters are in a high altitude “satoon,” a balloon satellite not quite in space, but in the upper atmosphere. The plan was to reach a friendly spaceship, but they were cut off, a hole was blown in the side of the satoon, and the two heroes went through.

Now, one of the characters is a space marine. He might have some slight survival gear, but he’s not dressed for vacuum combat because space suits make it hard to fight in normal situations. The other person is a rescued prisoner with no equipment but what the space marine can offer.

begins doing research I’d not heard of Project Manhigh. Thank you! I’ll see what I can find.

You may want to search out an email address and ask either Mr. Baumgartner himself or maybe Luke Aikens* for insights or research materials. I fairly often email public figures, professors, researchers, etc. that I don’t know personally to ask them about an aspect of their work. Almost everyone I’ve ever contacted has been very gracious with their time and/or responses.

*Remember him? Jumped from 25,000 feet without a parachute (or pressure suit) and landed in a net?

The problem isn’t that a high altitude parachutist will get “the bends” (which is due to dissolved gases in the blood coming out of solution) but an embolism due to a sudden reduction in ambient pressure resulting in . Even in HALO and HAHO jumps from 35 kft, supplemental oxygen is required to maintain consciousness, and at higher altitudes a partial pressure suit (one that provides external pressure to the extremities and torso while providing sufficient pressure to the lungs and sinuses) is necessary to prevent embolisms and loss of consciousness. Falling from the stratosphere, both pressure and insulating garments would be mandatory for survival.

The notion of a rescue vehicle essentially matching speed and rescuing the characters is implausible for numerous reasons including the difficulty in maintaining orientation control in rarified upper atmosphere and the amount of turbulence such a vehicle would create in lower atmosphere prohibiting controlled recovery. A somewhat more plausible notion might be a vehicle catching parachuting characters with a mid-air retrieval system as was used to catch surveillance satellite film canisters or the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system, but the characters would have to deploy a parachute such that a recovery could be effected.


You need to start by telling us whether “high altitude” in this case means 40K feet, 80K feet, 120K feet, or the “edge of space” = the Kármán line at 330K feet / 62mi /100km.

The problems your people will face will be vastly different depending on which you’re talking about.

Implausible for current tech, to be sure. But he did say this is science fiction, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to posit the eventual development of vehicles capable of this. You might need to introduce some explanation of why the vehicle is designed with this capability (presumably it wasn’t intended for rescues of this sort), depending on how hard you want to go.

The OP seems to be writing science-fiction, and IIRC Spock saved Kirk that way once just using rocket boots or something like that. So real science now, maybe not, but real movie science, maybe so.

Don’t just check Baumgartner - read about Kittinger’s jump. Without something to stabilize the jumper, they go into a flat spin and die. He almost died, were it not for the main chute set to open automatically, as he had already passed out from the spin.

In a Project Excelsior jump his glove depressurized causing his hand to be ‘grotesquely swollen’. However photos I can find don’t show that much swelling. I imagine it certainly felt that way to him.

I cannot find a reference to another case of someone with severely swollen eyes that I thought were the result of a high altitude jump. Pictures of that were thought to have contributed to some alien sighting stories.

I seem to vaguely remember seeing a documentary about an amateur high altitude sky diver that came before Baumgartner who struggled to acquire a pressure suit. And once he did, it either failed or he panicked and opened the visor while still way too high. He lived, but was mostly a vegetable for the rest of his life.

I almost think it was mentioned in the Baumgatner documentary…maybe?

The problem isn’t just one of technology; it is that in upper atmosphere there would be no way for the jumper to stabilize themselves and would likely be spinning uncontrollably, while at lower altitudes where there is sufficient drag to stabilize a jumper, the presence of an aircraft nearby would result in turbulence just due to flow around the fuselage. If you hang on the outside of an aircraft prior to a jump you can feel the aggressive buffeting, and once you let go you start to tumble until you get out of the wake. An experienced parachutist at recreational altitudes can stabilize almost immediately because they are essentially going from airspeed to terminal speed (and they are wearing a suit to maximize drag) but if the aircraft were right next to you it would be an uncontrollable environment.

For HALO and HAHO jumps, maintaining orientation control and dealing with induced vertigo are the key skills, and those are from under 40 kft. If you want a practical example of a higher altitude descent (somewhere above 60 kft), famous U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers describes his experience of being ejected from his aircraft when it broke up after being hit by a Soviet SAM, and despite still being connected to the cockpit via his air hose could not get to the aircraft to detonate the destruct charge on the film canister. He was wearing a partial pressure suit (the U-2 does not have a pressurized cockpit to save weight) and landed safely before being captured.

I suppose you could have a big net, or (since this is science fiction) a “force field”, or whatnot, but the o.p did say that he wanted to “maintain a degree of verisimilitude” which would entail having to address this issue.


I’d imagine it would the same kind of technology that lets one intercept a spaceship in LEO, (which is naturally travelling at orbital speeds) from a “satoon”, (which is presumably going about the same speed as the atmosphere). That transfer vehicle would already need to be able to make big velocity changes and match velocity of small objects (but not as small as individual humans, but there’s the drama) and if it was already part of the planned operation, that would be why it would be available and ready.

A photo is in the Nat Geo article on his successful jump (The Long, Lonely Leap). It’s swollen, but not what I would call “grotesque”.

Not that I’d want that to happen to me. :slight_smile:

FWIW, my ejection seat has oxygen in the seat pan for use during ejection. (Note: Linked image is to my eBay picture, so it will disappear if anyone buys the seat.)

Col. Stapp was a USAF research dude who did a lot of rocket sled tests dring the early days of figuring out high speed ejection seat design. There are some pictures of him out there wherein his face has been pretty badly beaten by wind forces.

That might be the origin of some of what you mean.

Possibly, or maybe I’m conflating that with something else. His high speed face distortion is well known, not always in context though. And Murphy’s Law should have been named Shapp’s Law after he coined the modern familiar form. I guess “Murphy’s Law” is a slightly more melodious though.

ETA: Reviewing Air Force reports explaining Roswell and other alien sightings I believe I’ve conflated the actual Operation High Dive dummies with photos from people with severe eye swelling not actually related to high altitude testing and purportedly not actual aliens either.

Most of us would have trouble not breathing for 3 minutes, but perhaps it’s worth noting that plenty of people can handle 3 minutes without breathing: it’s a matter of training and personal aptitude. The world record is something like 24 minutes.

Also, high altitude temperature doesn’t seem to be ??? too low for surviveability ???: I imagine the big short-term problem would be from wind chill ???