- A legendary extreme sportsman will balloon into the stratosphere at age 69.
- Human-piloted balloons can't reach true outer space because of how balloons fly.
- Fedor Konyukhov will follow his space balloon with a gentle solo sail across the Pacific Ocean.
World-famous adventurer Fedor Konyukhov just turned 69, and he’s planning to balloon into almost-space next month before crossing the Pacific Ocean on a solar-powered catamaran. This is all basically normal stuff for a guy who’s ballooned around the world, sailed the entire way around Antarctica, and set all kinds of records in the process. But even for someone who’s climbed Mt. Everest, the stratosphere is a whole new high mark of adventure and danger.
Breaking the altitude record is often a byproduct of breaking the parachute fall record, since one is required to complete the other. A carefully made rocket plane can approach the same heights, but you wouldn’t want to jump out of one at high speeds. The current altitude record for a balloon is held by Google’s Alan Eustace, after a balloon carted him up to 135,890 feet in 2014. He broke Felix Baumgartner’s record that was also part of a free fall jump.
Konyukhov doesn’t want to jump out of his balloon—he just wants to cross into the stratosphere and fulfill a childhood dream to see the blackness of space and the curved surface of the Earth. The stratosphere begins at about 50,000 feet, and Konyukhov wants to reach 83,000 feet if the weather isn’t ideal, and 95,000 feet if it is. At that height, he won’t technically be in space—he’ll just be able to see into space.
The softly agreed-upon line where space begins is called the Kármán line, which is sometimes placed at 50 miles up and sometimes at 62 miles up. Since both numbers are well above 200,000 feet, our current balloon records are nowhere close. And that’s a scientific truism more than a lack of wherewithal, because as the atmosphere thins more and more approaching the Kármán line, the ways a balloon stays afloat are progressively disabled until there’s nothing at all holding it up.
If a human-piloted balloon could more than double the current record and approach the line, the balloon wouldn’t pop and plummet—it simply wouldn't be able to go higher than a certain point. And depending on how the thinning air was distributed, it might bob around in pockets where the air reaches higher or lower. But protecting your fragile human meat body would be hard long before you reached that point.
Konyukhov’s 200-foot balloon will carry him all the way to 83,000+ feet. The stratosphere gets hotter as you climb further into it, and in 2014, Eustace explained to the New York Times that staying cool in his required life-support spacesuit became a real trial and was a major part of preparation for the trip. At the altitude Konyukhov has planned, he’ll have way fewer existential threats from the thin air of space, but he’ll still need a special suit with a prepared oxygen supply.
The aging adventurer is also a prize-winning artist and an ordained clergyman in Russia, and glimpsing the world outside the world will likely inspire his future journeys in more ways than one.
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