Felix Baumgartner free falls from edge of space, breaking sound barrier

October 14, 2012

Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner fell to Earth from 24 miles up Sunday, enrapturing millions of people following a live feed of his stunt as he became the first human being to travel faster than the speed of sound without the assistance of a craft.

During a four-minute, 20-second free fall, he reached a speed of Mach 1.24 or 833.9 miles per hour, according to an official with the National Aeronautic Association.

The data on Baumgartner’s jump is preliminary until verified by international authorities, including those in Austria, Baumgartner’s home country.

He stands to have broken three records: the highest jump from a platform, the longest free fall without a drogue parachute and the highest vertical velocity.

“These are mind-blowing numbers,” Baumgartner said at a news conference later. “When I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records anymore, you do not think about gaining scientific data. The only thing you want is you want to come back alive.”

When asked how it felt to travel faster than the speed of sound, Baumgartner said it was “hard to describe” because he “didn’t feel it at all.” The pressurized suit operated much like a casket, protecting him against the thin air and keeping his bodily fluids from essentially boiling at the high altitude.

Baumgartner, 43, completed his historic sky-dive above ­Roswell, N.M., a location chosen for its favorable weather conditions — a critical component of the high-risk mission. He was guided throughout the feat by retired Air Force Col. Joseph Kittinger, who held the previous record for highest sky-dive, for his 1960 jump from a balloon just over 19 miles up.

This time, however, Kittinger’s feet were firmly planted on Earth, while he served as “Capcom,” or capsule communication, during Baumgartner’s mission. He was the only person with direct contact with Baumgartner during his flight and eventual descent.

The entire undertaking from liftoff to the moment when Baumgartner set foot on land lasted close to three hours, with the ascent taking up the bulk of the time.

Cameras inside and outside of the capsule captured Baumgartner’s rise by a 550-foot tall helium balloon. The balloon rose first quickly and then more slowly as the atmosphere became thinner and the helium inside continued to expand. The ascent culminated in the nail-biting moment when he eventually squeezed out of the capsule’s open door and, after delivering brief remarks, lightly hopped into the stratosphere’s extraordinarily thin air, 128,100 feet above sea level.

Baumgartner’s speech just before leaving the capsule was difficult to make out over the audio feed. During the news conference later, Baumgartner recited it again: “I said, I know the whole world is watching now, and I wish the world could see what I see. And sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you are.”

On the ground, Baumgartner’s family, including his mother, Ava Baumgartner, watched. Online, the mission team’s Web site gave followers an opportunity to watch closely as the various metrics, including altitude and cabin pressure, gradually changed.

Screams of joy went up from mission control the second Baumgartner’s feet touched the ground.

An attempt to complete the mission Tuesday was aborted at the last minute because of high winds. Anything less than ideal weather conditions could have torn the balloon, producing potentially fatal results, particularly if the capsule were below 4,000 feet.

A number of other challenges were present during the mission, including whether Baumgartner would enter into what is called a “flat spin,” when a diver’s arms and legs spin around the torso sending dangerous amounts of blood into the head. Baumgartner said he felt as if he had entered into a flat spin briefly but gained control.

One of the goals of the mission was to produce data that would aid in the development of the next generation of space suits, as well as expand scientific knowledge of the effects of high altitude and supersonic speeds on the human body.

“Usually when a doctor shows up to a press conference, we’re having a bad day,” said mission medical director Jonathan Clark. The data from Baumgartner’s jump has yet to be fully analyzed, but Clark said the data collected “is going to break incredible new ground.”

Asked how he felt about his own records in the wake of Baumgartner’s achievement, Kittinger said, “Well, records were meant to be broken,” going on to say that “better champions cannot be found than Felix Baumgartner.”

Baumgartner, clearly proud of what he and his team had achieved, said that he looked forward to being in Kittinger’s shoes in the future and guiding another aspiring supersonic traveler to achieve the dream of falling from the edge of space.

Read more news and ideas on Ideas@Innovations and follow Kolawole at @emikolawole.

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