Space the Final Frontier for Felix

Skydiving daredevil Felix Baumgartner is more than halfway toward his goal of setting a world record for the highest jump.

Baumgartner lifted off yesterday (Thurs) for a test jump from Roswell, N.M., aboard a 100-foot helium balloon. He rode inside a pressurized capsule to 71,581 feet — 13.6 miles — and then jumped. He parachuted safely, according to project spokeswoman Trish Medalen.

He’s aiming for nearly 23 miles this summer. The record is 19.5 miles.

“The view is amazing, way better than I thought,” Baumgartner said after the practice jump, in remarks provided by his representatives.

Thursday’s rehearsal was a test of his capsule, full-pressure suit, parachutes and other systems. A mini Mission Control — fashioned after NASA’s — monitored his flight.

Baumgartner reached speeds of up to 364.4 miles per hour and was in free fall for three minutes and 43 seconds, before pulling his parachute cords, Medalen said. The entire jump lasted eight minutes and eight seconds. She stressed that the numbers were still unofficial.

With Thursday’s successful test, Baumgartner is believed to be only the third person ever to jump from such a high altitude and free fall to a safe landing, and the first in a half-century.

“I’m now a member of a pretty small club,” he said.

When the 42-year-old Austrian known as “Fearless Felix” leaps from 120,000 feet in a few months, he expects to break the sound barrier as he falls through the stratosphere at supersonic speed. There is virtually no atmosphere that far up, making it extremely hostile to humans, thus the need for a pressure suit and oxygen supply.
The record for the highest free fall is held by Joe Kittinger, a retired Air Force officer from Florida. He jumped from 102,800 feet — 19.5 miles — in 1960.

Baumgartner is out to beat that record. He plans one more dry run — jumping from 90,000 feet — before attempting the full 120,000 feet. The launch window opens in July and extends until the beginning of October.

Baumgartner has jumped 2,500 times from planes and helicopters, as well as some of the highest landmarks and skyscrapers on the planet — the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro, the Millau Viaduct in southern France, the 101-story Taipei 101 in Taiwan.

He has also plunged deep into the Earth, leaping face-first into a pitch-dark cave in Croatia.

Baumgartner considers that 620-foot-deep cave jump his most dangerous feat so far, soon to be outdone by his stratospheric plunge. His mission takes its name, Red Bull Stratos, from the stratosphere as well as the energy drink-maker sponsor.

He has caught NASA’s attention, even though space officially begins much higher at an even 100 kilometres, or 62 miles.

Kittinger is now 83 and one of Baumgartner’s chief advisers. A former NASA flight director directs the medical team: Dr. Jonathan Clark, whose astronaut wife, Laurel, was killed aboard space shuttle Columbia in 2003. The accident led Clark to become an expert in spacecraft emergency escape.

Kittinger and Clark were among those taking part in Thursday’s dress rehearsal.

He said: “In the last 20 years I’ve been involved in lots of spectacular projects. But jumping from the world’s tallest building is a never-ending story with ever higher buildings and not really a challenge anymore. But Red Bull Stratos will bypass all of those. There are not really very many records left to be broken – but to be the first person to go through the sound barrier unaided is going to be something special. Everyone knows who was the first person on the moon or the first person on Everest. Breaking this record is in the same league.

“The idea originated with Joe Keating who in the 60’s set a record that had never been broken. Despite the fact that technology is much better he managed to survive after jumping from a 31 kilometre height. By adding another five kilometres we can break the sound barrier. What actually happens when the human body goes through the sound barrier though is something that nobody knows. That’s why what we’re doing is entering new territory.

“Lots of people ask me why I want to do it. They also ask me why we only added five kilometres on and not more. But any extreme mountaineer can tell you that the difference between 7,000 kilometres and 8,000 kilometres is enormous even if physically it’s only 1,000 metres. That is where the death zone begins.

“Adding another five kilometres for the Red Bull Stratus project was extremely hard. To make the extra five kilometres the balloon needs to be twice the size – 168 metres high to be precise. That extra size increases the weight of the balloon material which will weigh over a tonne.

“Also at that height I don’t have any oxygen – that means I need to have oxygen supplied. There’s also virtually no atmosphere at that height – on the earth we have 99.9 per cent atmosphere that gives us pressure. At 36 kilometres you have an atmosphere of 0.5 percent. That’s why I need the special suit to make the difference. If I didn’t have the suit – the liquid in my body would start to cook.

“On the earth water cooks at a hundred degrees centigrade. But the higher you go the lower the boiling point is. That is despite the fact that at this height it is a temperature of around -50 degrees centigrade.”

Technical experts on the project say it means that if for example he did not have the suit his eyeballs would boil in their sockets.

Baumgartner added that the moment when he jumped would be particularly poignant, saying “That will be the last moment when I can really feel alive and have a choice – once I jump there won’t be any turning back. If the life-support system fails – there will only be one result. A Formula One driver can pull over into the pits if things go wrong, a ski ace can slow down and stop. For me there will be no way out.”

Baumgartner’s jump is set to take place over New Mexico in August. It will break all records including the longest freefall – expected to be around five minutes and 35 seconds – freefall from the greatest height at over 36 kilometres – the highest speed of 1,300 kilometres an hour beating the previous record of 988 kilometres an hour – and the highest manned balloon flight.