The 45-year-old Portland State University anthropologist couldn't join NASA's aviation program because of his poor eyesight. Lacking the funds to buy a ticket on a private space flight, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
At 50,000 feet up, death is imminent, so the first thing to do was build a suit. Smith bought some of the parts off the Internet: a diver's dry suit, a gauge that measures internal air pressure, and an aquarium pump to circulate cooling fluid. Ace Hardware had other bits like nylon straps, wire, and a slew of PVC fittings and valves. It's topped off with an authentic 1980s-era soviet fighter helmet.
Once the proof-of-concept suit is complete, Smith will test his rig in a hypobaric chamber, and if all goes well it will be rebuilt with sturdier elements. Then he'll craft a nylon balloon, get a balloon pilot's license, and clear his route with authorities. "If they could do this in the 1930s with rubberized canvas and pigskin gloves, surely I can do it now with the technology available," Smith says. "This is not so crazy. This is not so wild." Sure. We'll just stay on the ground and watch from here, thanks.