Saturday, Jan 19 2013 02:14 PM

Tehachapi's Mike Todd has the right stuff

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Mike Todd of Tehachapi was an important member of the Red Bull Stratos Mission to the Edge of Space and Supersonic freefall, which made history last October when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner flew approximately into the stratosphere over New Mexico in a helium balloon before free falling in a pressure suit and then parachuting to Earth. Todd designed the suit. Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Tehachapi’s Mike Todd assists Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner into the special designed capsule that will carry him 120,000 feet before he free falls back to earth. Todd was the Life Support Engineer for the Red Bull Statos Project Mission to the Edge of Space. Photo courtesy of Mike Todd

Above 100,000 feet elevation is a near vacuum, with no oxygen and temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

The odds of survival at that altitude without the proper equipment would be calculated in seconds. But even with the best gear corporate money can buy, it's perilous, as the slightest slip-up can turn lethal.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Tehachapi's Mike Todd, who while the sun rose over the New Mexico desert on Oct. 14, 2012, faced his fears and elevated his affinity for skydiving to a whole new level -- nearly 24 miles above earth.

Todd was the life support engineer for the Red Bull Stratos Mission to the Edge of Space and Supersonic freefall, which made history when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner flew approximately 24 miles into the stratosphere over New Mexico in a helium balloon before free falling in a pressure suit and then parachuting to Earth.

Earlier in his career, Todd experienced tragedy, losing friend Nicholas Piantanida during a high-altitude space dive in 1966.

But his courage to continue to carry out what Piantanida sought to do, gave Todd a second chance, landing him a role in helping to design, perfect and maintain the pressure suit, helmet and the oxygen components, which kept Baumgartner alive as fell through space at nearly 834 miles per hour.

"I felt that the opportunity to work on the Stratos project would bring some closure to Nick's death for me," Todd said. "I wanted to see this project succeed, and when I saw the partners in this, which was Red Bull, I knew money would not be an issue as it was with Nick."

It wasn't, as Red Bulls' Stratos project, although shrouded in a veil of financial secrecy, has been rumored to have exceeded $40 million.

Years in the making

More than eight million viewers are estimated to have watched as Baumgartner stepped into a specially built space capsule, slowly ascended to the edge of the stratosphere beneath an enormous helium balloon before freefalling and then parachuting gently back to Earth.

Setting multiple world records for skydiving, as well as being the first human being to break the sound barrier without vehicular power, Baumgartner's achievement was the culmination of seven years of engineering triumphs and setbacks.

To make matters more difficult, Baumgartner's jump required a "next generation" pressure suit. One, which would cost a quarter of a million dollars, and previously never was developed, let alone actually used.

That prompted Red Bull technical project director Art Thompson, owner of aerospace engineering firm Sage Cheshire in Lancaster, to enlist Todd, whose affinity for skydiving that began in the late 1950s, had already taken him to heights greater than he had ever imagined.

Once a test jumper for Pioneer Parachute Co. in South Windsor, Conn., the 71-year-old Tehachapi resident made more than 800 jumps before giving up skydiving in 1969 to work as an engineer for the next three decades.

After moving to Palmdale in 1971 to work for Lockheed's "Skunk Works" High Altitude Life Support and Pressure Suit Division, Todd retired in 2000, just six months before receiving a call from American businessman, and a record-setting adventurer Steve Fossett, who asked Todd to help him on his record-breaking Perlan glider project.

The two worked side-by-side for 3-1/2 years, often swapping stories of hiking the rugged landscape of the Sierra Nevadas, where Fossett later perished in a single-engine plane crash in September of 2007.

"Steve was a neat guy and I liked working for him," Todd said. "I suspect when he was up there the day he died, he was looking at some of the very peaks we used to talk about."

It was during his time with Fossett that Todd gained recognition for his work with pressure suits. And after his meeting with Thompson, he would spend the next 5-1/2 years trying to make history.

Facing his nightmare

Although Todd's only involvement leading up to the accident that killed Paitanida was test jumping his parachute, the anxiety of helping tailor the custom-made David Clark Company suit that Baumgartner required for his leap into space, wasn't the only thing that conjured up nightmares for Todd.

His primary concern was something much more frightening -- Baumgartner's transition from supersonic to subsonic velocity.

Known as transonic, it is an envelope where part of Baumgartner could be traveling at subsonic and supersonic speeds all at the same time. The supersonic wave moving down his body could result in shock waves colliding with each other, resulting in extreme instability that could comprise his suit, Todd said.

The smallest tear, would likely result in ebullism, the formation of gas bubbles in bodily fluid, which would in essence boil Baumgartner's blood, rendering him unconscious within 15 seconds.

"We didn't know what would happen because no one had ever done it," Todd said. "That was an area we were very, very concerned about it."

However, after months of intense testing, including 60 high-altitude test jumps in California City and Taft, Todd and his team made the decision that the suit would function as needed.

"Of course, the concern of something going wrong is always on the back of your mind," Todd said. "But you focus on what you are doing, and the free fall was all up to Felix."

History is made

After several postponements due to inclement weather, the Red Bull Stratos Mission to the Edge of Space mission was finally a go last October.

After the skydiver had a private moment with a friend, Todd was the last one to have physical contact with Baumgartner before sealing the capsule's hatch.

As the 55-story balloon gently drifted away, climbing at a rate of 1,000 feet per minute, Todd listened closely to mission control and Baumgartner's conversations as he raced towards a pre-planned landing point.

"Once we got through 100,000 feet I knew we were a go," said Todd who pointed out that Baumgartner had already made two prior jumps out of a balloon, including one at 97,000 feet.

"There was no doubt in our minds the equipment was capable," Todd said. "But there's always something out there that will bite you and it always happens when you least expect it."

After a 4-minute, 22-second death-defying free fall, Baumgartner safely touched down with a picture perfect landing, punctuated by falling to his knees before being embraced by Todd.

"I was the first one to reach him when he landed," Todd said. "I can't tell you how relieved I was that he was on the ground and safe."

The final frontier

Since the historic jump, the shy and soft-spoken Todd has been on a whirlwind media melee, which is set to conclude with a nationwide museum tour ending at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C where the 3,000-pound capsule, pressure suit and parachute will be enshrined.

As for Todd, his plans are to remain in Tehachapi, spending his time hiking, camping and off-roading.

"I am going to retire from retirement," he said with a smile. "I am 71-years old and I have had enough."

However, retirement is a relative term for a man who just helped to pioneer the next generation of space suits.

And it's not likely we have heard the last of Todd, who alluded that he has been approached by an old friend who is interested in starting his own business of privatized space exploration.

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