Late last week, while the rest of us were counting down our minutes to punch-out, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner — “Fearless Felix” as he’s known — went where only two others have ever gone before, and took a jump from 71,851 feet.
From the perch of his high-altitude helium balloon, Baumgartner witnessed the curvature of the earth before taking a 3 minute and 43 second free-fall from nearly 13.5 miles up, hurtling him to a top speed of 364.4 mph – or more than 534 feet per second.
“I wanted to open the parachute after descending for a while, but I noticed that I was still at an altitude of 50,000 feet,” Baumgartner said. The entire jump took 8 minutes and 8 seconds, landing Baumgartner near Roswell, New Mexico at around 9:50 AM on Friday morning.
The most impressive part of the stunt though, was that the death-defying leap was merely a trial run for Baumgartner’s planned record-breaking jump from 120,000 feet. From that height, he hopes to break the sound barrier — with his own body.
Record breaking jump
As Red Bull states on the Stratos project’s website, the mission “will attempt to transcend human limits that have existed for 50 years.” On August 16, 1960 Joe Kittinger of the USAF — now part of Baumgartner’s team — made history with the “highest step in the world,” ascending to a height of 102,800 feet in a high-altitude balloon and jumping back to Earth. At that time, Kittinger’s contribution to the scientific canon was immeasurable: He was actually attempting to test the limits of human endurance for manned spaceflight, which the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would achieve a short 8 months later — just a month ahead of American astronaut Alan Shepard.
By jumping from a far greater height, and attempting to achieve supersonic speed, Baumgartner’s “attempt to dare atmospheric limits holds the potential to provide valuable medical and scientific research data for future pioneers,” says Red Bull.
The fact, however, is that Baumgartner is that rare breed of adrenaline junky who would be pushing these boundaries without even a hint of remuneration: He took his first skydive at the age of 16, and began performing in exhibitions in 1988. He’s already made world-record BASE jumps — a notoriously risky endeavor that makes traditional skydiving of the George Bush Sr. variety look like it’s got training wheels on — and his “determination to reach the edge of space and break the speed of sound is unshakable.”
All in all, the team hopes to set 4 separate world records in addition to Baumgartner’s Mach 1 in freefall — an estimated 690 mph. They include the longest freefall time and the highest manned balloon flight.
No reward without risk
Because hardly any atmosphere exists in the relative vacuum of 120,000 feet, and therefore no friction to slow Baumgartner down, that height is a requirement if the Red Bull Stratos team hopes to pull off the record. Although Baumgartner will be wearing a pressurized suit due to extremely low temperatures of 0 to -10 degrees, the peril of such a jump cannot be overstated. “On the way up without even opening the capsule door you can find yourself in a life or death situation. So it’s extremely dangerous,” said Mike Todd, Red Bull Stratos life support engineer. Even a misstep once the capsule door is opened could result in an uncontrollable spin and “possible loss of consciousness.”
But it is Baumgartner’s extraordinary brand of daring that lead us into the space age 50 years ago, through the likes of test pilots such as Chuck Yeager, and Baumgartner’s findings will hopefully pave the way for future exploration. At the very least, we’ll get some spectacular footage: The whole thing will be captured in 4K HD by Flightline Films. The final launch is expected this summer, and you can keep up with the progress here.
Image Credit: Red Bull Stratos