The countdown is on for a record-breaking jump attempt from the edge of space next week, one which will see Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner headbutt the sound barrier and perform the first supersonic free fall in history. If successful, his jump from 120,000 feet – roughly 23 miles – will shatter retired USAF Colonel Joe Kittinger’s 52-year record for the highest skydive and fastest human free fall, placing the Red Bull Stratos pilot in a class all his own.
“I love a challenge, and trying to become the first person to break the speed of sound in free fall is a challenge like no other”, says Baumgartner. The man known as “Fearless Felix” is no stranger to the world of skydiving and base-jumping. He has jumped 2,500 times from various aircraft as well as from some of the highest landmarks, natural and man-made, in the world (including the giant statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro). He has even dived into the Earth, having jumped over 600 feet into a pitch black cave in Croatia.
His record-setting jump attempt on October 8 comes on the heels of two successful “practice” dives earlier this year. Last March Baumgartner performed a skydive in the skies over Roswell, New Mexico from just over 71,000 feet, roughly 13 miles high. The dive put him in an exclusive club as only the third person in history to have ever jumped from an altitude higher than 70,000 feet. The dive also topped his personal best of 30,000 feet.
Practice dive number two took place this past July. Carried aloft by a 100-foot helium balloon, Baumgartner jumped from his custom made pressurized capsule and fell over 18 miles back to Earth. The 96,000 foot dive lasted nearly 11 minutes, with Baumgartner flying in his pressurized flight suit through the coldest part of the atmosphere where temperatures as low as -94 Fahrenheit are typical. At that altitude water vaporizes instantly, and any problem with his flight suit or life support systems would mean instant death. He was in free fall for 3 minutes and 48 seconds, falling as fast as a commercial airliner travels at cruising speed, before deploying his parachutes.
Typical cruising altitude for commercial airlines is 30,000 feet, Baumgartner jumped from nearly three times higher – most aircraft cannot even fly at such a high altitude.
Video Credit: Red Bull Stratos
Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos space capsule, which weighs about the same as a VW Beetle, was damaged in a hard landing after his second practice jump in July. The capsule was repaired and underwent testing in an altitude chamber at Brooks City-Base in San Antonio, Texas before being sent back to the Roswell, New Mexico launch site. With teams now confident in the capsule’s ability to tolerate the extreme conditions it will face in the unforgiving environment of the stratosphere, the countdown is on for an October 8 jump attempt.
Baumgartner’s jump next week not only aims to make him the first person to break the sound barrier in free fall (and set four other world records in the process), but also to collect valuable data for science that could ultimately help improve the safety of space travel and enable high-altitude escapes from spacecraft.
The current record holder, retired USAF Colonal Joe Kittinger, is part of the Red Bull Stratos team sponsoring Baumgartner’s quest to make history. Kittinger jumped from an altitude of 102,800 feet in 1960 as part of Project Excelsior – a program carried out by the U.S. Air Force to design a parachute system which would allow safe descent for flight crews who ejected from their aircraft at high altitudes. Kittinger also set records for the longest parachute drogue fall and still holds the record for the fastest human free fall. His knowledge and experience serve as an invaluable asset to the team. Serving as Capcom (Capsule Communications), Kittinger will be mission control’s primary point of radio contact with Baumgartner during his two-hour ascent.
“Fear has become a friend of mine. It’s what prevents me from stepping too far over the line”, says Baumgartner. ”On a mission like this, you need to be mentally fit and have total control over what you do, and I’m preparing very thoroughly. I’ve also got an incredible team around me, and I know they wouldn’t be part of this mission unless they thought it could succeed. I trust their expertise, and their confidence builds my confidence.”
“As a skydiver I have completed 2500 jumps, so jumping is my business”, adds Baumgartner. ”Just before I set off I will know that I am heading home.”
- Baumgartner’s 120,000 foot-high supersonic skydive from the edge of space can be watched live on the day of the jump at www.redbullstratos.com