In 2014, Alan Eustace set out to go where no man had gone before.
The then-57 year old Google executive used a helium balloon to reach the upper reaches of the stratosphere, before plunging to the ground in a spacesuit and parachute of his own design. Eustace spent 14 minutes soaring through the air before landing safely and establishing a new world record for high-altitude jumps.
His quest to use science to pass the speed of sound is the subject of a new documentary, “14 Minutes From Earth,” which follows Eustace and his team as they prepare for the big plunge. The film screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and is showing Friday at the San Francisco Docfest.
Eustace spoke with Variety about his love of skydiving, how his family handled the pressure, and what it’s like to fall to Earth.
Are you a risk taker?
I consider myself to be a risk reducer, not a risk taker. People think of skydiving as risky, but you know what the dangers are and you train for them. In everything I do, I learn as much as possible about it, so I reduce the risks. I’m sure watching TV every night has its own risks from a medical perspective.
What made you want to do something so dangerous?
I’ve always been interested in engineering and engineering problems. I read about the different attempts to jump from the skies and what didn’t work about them.
It started out about the problem and whether it was even possible, regardless of who was doing it. I didn’t just want to build the suit or fund it. I wanted to fly it. My wife, of course, would have preferred I not fly it. But I felt that would be like begging someone else to climb Mount Everest for you.
How did your family feel about your decision to jump?
It was hard for them. My wife has a microbiology and public health background, and she asks a lot of questions. She asked if anyone had been hurt or killed attempting to do this, and of course the answer is yes.
It was hard for them to be comforted by me just saying, well we expect things to be different this time and we’ve studied the past failures and we knew what the issues were.
Did you get scared?
When you’re pushing boundaries, you do. I’d get anxious at times, but I’d say I was more focused than scared. When tests didn’t go well, I’d refer to it as a learning experience. I chose to look at it as a science experiment, one that proved we could do something as a team that no one else had ever done.
Did you enjoy the experience of falling to Earth?
The jump is beautiful. The trip itself is like Google Earth in reverse. I knew I’d never again see something like it again, so I was determined to soak it in for all it was worth.
What’s your follow-up?
It’s hard to say. My wife banned me from doing anything extremely dangerous, but my definition of what that is involves a pretty high bar.