On May 8, 2013, Alan Eustace, then the 56-year-old senior vice president of knowledge at Google, jumped from an airplane18,000 feet above the desert in Coolidge, Arizona. Anyone watching would have witnessed an odd sight: Eustace was wearing a bulky white space suit—the kind nasa astronauts wear. He looked like a free-falling Michelin Man.
Listen to the audio version of this article:Download the Audm app for your iPhone to listen to more titles.
Through his giant space helmet and oxygen mask, Eustace could see the ground stretched out for miles. But the view wasn’t his main concern. He hadn’t quite worked out how to control the space suit, which, unlike a typical skydiving suit, weighed about 265 pounds and was pumped full of pressurized air. Eustace, an experienced skydiver, knew how to shift his body to change direction or to stop himself from spinning—a problem that, if uncorrected, can lead to blackout, then death. But when he started to rotate—slowly at first, then faster and faster—his attempts to steady himself just made things worse. He felt like he was bouncing around inside a concrete box.
At 10,000 feet, Eustace pulled a cord to open his parachute. Nothing happened. Then he tried a backup cord. That one didn’t work either. Eustace knew better than to panic: Three safety divers had jumped with him to monitor his fall. Within seconds, one of the divers reached across Eustace and yanked open the main chute.
All Eustace had to do now was depressurize his suit, which would deflate it and allow him to steer himself toward the landing area. He reached for a dial on the side of the suit and turned it. Nothing happened. With the suit still pressurized, Eustace couldn’t extend his arms overhead to grab the handles that controlled the chute. He began slowly drifting off course. Soon he lost sight of the safety divers. He tried to radio for help, but got no response. He now had a more pressing problem: As he approached the…