Austrian extreme skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space on Sunday, and has lived to tell the tale.
Lots of records were smashed in the extraordinary leap, which took place above New Mexico, including:
- highest manned balloon flight -- his balloon took him to a height of 128,000 feet (24.2 miles), some way above the planned 120,000 feet
- highest jump -- at 128,097 feet (39,044 meters), it smashed the previous record, held by Colonel Joe Kittinger, who jumped from a height of 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) in 1960. Fittingly, Kittinger was part of Baumgartner's Red Bull Stratos support team, and talked with the Austrian from mission control throughout his ascent
- first person to break the speed of sound without the aid of a vehicle, falling at faster than 690mph (1,110km/h)
- fastest freefall -- Baumgartner broke the speed of sound, reaching a top speed of 834mph (1,342km/h) = velocity 373 meters per second = Mach 1.24
There was one for YouTube too, with over seven million viewers around the world hooking up to its live stream of the jump.
Just prior to stepping off his capsule at 128,000 feet, Baumgartner saluted the camera and said, "Sometimes you have to go up really high to realise how small you are." And then he was on his way.
There was a worrying 20 or seconds or so where Baumgartner spun out of control, seemingly unable to stabilize himself. Such a spin could have caused him to lose consciousness. When he eventually managed to control his fall, applause filled mission control. Next, Baumgartner was heard to say something, but it was hard to understand -- hardly surprising considering the speed of his descent. Whatever it was, it sounded like a full sentence rather than a scream of terror. Things were looking up.
The 43-year-old daredevil was in freefall for a distance of 119,864 feet for four minutes and 19 seconds, leaving him 17 seconds short of snapping up another record, for longest freefall. In his 1960 jump, Kittinger's freefall lasted four minutes and 36 seconds.
Baumgartner executed a perfect landing, touching down on both feet before dropping to his knees and raising his arms aloft in celebration.
In a press conference following the successful jump, the Austrian told reporters, "When I was standing there on top of the world so humble, you are not thinking about breaking records. I was thinking about coming back alive. You do not want to die in front of your parents and all these people … I thought ‘please God, don't let me down."
Baumgartner and his team knew the jump was fraught with danger. The uncontrolled spin was one of several problems they had considered. If his special space suit had ripped on his descent, his oxygen supply could've been destroyed, with potentially lethal bubbles forming in his blood.
As for breaking the speed of sound -- no one really knew what would happen. In the event, Baumgartner said that although he went faster than the speed of sound, he "didn't feel a thing." He said the team would have to look at the data to find out at exactly what point it happened.
In the end, there was one problem that could've caused the mission to be aborted. As Baumgartner was taken higher in his capsule by a 700-foot-high helium-filled balloon, a heater in his helmet faceplate stopped working, causing it to become fogged when he exhaled. After some consideration, it was decided to go ahead with the jump as planned.
"Even on a day like this when you start so well, then there's a little glitch … and you think you'll have to abort -- what if you've prepared everything and it fails on a visor problem. But I finally decided to jump. And it was the right decision."
Before Baumgartner's daredevil leap, Art Thompson, the technical project director of Red Bull Stratos, told the BBC that any records achieved during the jump were incidental. "The function of this entire program is from a scientific point of view," he said. "When you look at the accidents like with Columbia or Challenger, we believe that you're actually capable of exiting a vehicle at high speed and capable of understanding how to control your descent." NASA was reportedly watching Baumgartner's jump with great interest, and will no doubt be keen to take a close look at the data garnered from the feat.
Though Baumgartner will be mightily relieved to have landed safely back on Earth, it probably won't be long before the thrill seeker comes up with another plan to keep the adrenaline coursing through his veins.
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