Baumgartner makes record-setting skydive

The extreme skydiver has set a record for the highest manned balloon ascent and highest freefall. It remains to be seen whether he actually went supersonic.

Felix Baumgartner
(Credit: Red Bull Stratos)

On Sunday, the 43-year-old extreme skydiver ascended to the upper reaches of the atmosphere above Roswell in a bid to come racing back down in a supersonic freefall.

The unofficial top speed recorded by Baumgartner's Red Bull Stratos team was 1137 kilometres per hour. The team's expectation was that 1110km/h would be sufficient to get Baumgartner to Mach 1 — a somewhat variable standard, depending on elevation, air density and other factors. But that would handily beat the record for the fastest freefall, which has stood at 614mph for half a century.

Baumgartner seems clearly to have set a record for the highest manned balloon flight and the highest freefall, having jumped from at altitude of 128,097 feet, or 39 kilometres. The duration of the freefall, four minutes and 19 seconds, was just shy of the record (4:36).

Baumgartner nearly got off the ground on Tuesday. The massive but thin-skinned polyethylene balloon that was to carry him aloft was partially filled, and he was already ensconced in the capsule slung below it, when gusty winds forced the cancellation of that day's ascent.

There's a certain irony to the mission's sensitivity to wind gusts. Baumgartner, after all, was plummeting through the sky at a far, far faster pace, even after he eventually deployed his parachute. But there is no skydive at all if the equipment is damaged in the set-up phase.

The door to the capsule is open, and Baumgartner is ready to jump.
(Credit: Red Bull Stratos/Screenshot by CNET)

The mission was a momentous one, with roots stretching back to the earliest years of the space race. Baumgartner was setting out to set four records: the fastest freefall (an unprecedented Mach 1), the longest sustained freefall, a free fall from the highest-ever starting point and the highest ascent in a manned balloon.

Baumgartner made a two-hour-plus ascent to an altitude of approximately 39 kilometres. At that point, he stepped out into the open air in a carefully choreographed manoeuvre to get his body into the proper position for the freefall. In the thin stratospheric air there, he encountered very little wind resistance, which helped in his quest to get to 1110km/h — the approximate speed of sound at that frigid elevation.

At that altitude, a person needs a helmet, full pressure suit and other gear to protect against the dangers of too little oxygen, too little air pressure and sub-zero temperatures. A chest pack in Baumgartner's rig logged the data needed for the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the body that governs air sports and aviation records, to certify his achievements. The gear in the pack included a GPS tracking device, an inertia measurement unit, an HD camera and a voice transmitter and receiver.

Felix Baumgartner in freefall, as seen via infrared tracking camera.
(Credit: Red Bull Stratos/Screenshot by CNET)

The pressure suit also has five cameras — one in the chest pack and two on each thigh — to record the skydive. The 1315-kilogram, tech-laden capsule was also tricked out with a wide array of cameras, as were the project's ground stations and a chase helicopter. It was a very well-documented event.

Both the balloon and capsule are expected to make a return trip to Earth for recovery by Baumgartner's team. The Red Bull Stratos site (yes, he's backed by the maker of energy drinks) described the process this way:

After Felix has landed, Mission Control will trigger the separation of the capsule and balloon, so that the capsule can descend under its parachute. A nylon "destruct line" will release the helium so that the balloon returns to Earth. Then, the team will gather the envelope into a large truck, a process that can take several hours."

Baumgartner, a veteran of more than 2300 skydives who has been training for this moment for five years, was looking to surpass milestones established more than 50 years ago. In August 1960, Air Force officer Joe Kittinger jumped from 102,800 feet (31.3 kilometres) and hit a top speed of about 988km/h, as the Pentagon and the still very young NASA were trying to get a handle on how humans would be affected by high-altitude atmospheric flight and space travel. (Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin didn't become the first person in space until eight months later.)

Kittinger is now a prominent adviser to Baumgartner and Red Bull Stratos.

To make the jump, Baumgartner first had to ascend in a pressurised 1315-kilogram capsule, about the size of a VW Beetle.
(Credit: Red Bull Stratos)

Tuesday's attempt was scrubbed when a wind gust hit 22 knots as the massive balloon — measuring 228.6 metres tall, including the capsule below, and stretching to 849,505 cubic metres when filled — was being inflated on an airfield tarmac. The air needs to be virtually still during that phase of the operation.

"As we inflated the balloon and got Felix into the capsule at about 11.42am [local time], we experienced a gust of wind that took us above 22 knots at the peak of the balloon," Red Bull Stratos project director of art Thompson said in a statement. "The integrity of the balloon at that point is really unknown and unacceptable to use for manned flight, because we were not sure what would happen as we launch. Our biggest problem was the wind at the 750-foot level."

Red Bull Stratos said that the wind gust had "dangerously twisted" the balloon.

The delay of the launch helped deepen the historical resonance of the jump; it was 65 years ago to the day that Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier ever, doing so in the rocket-powered X-1 aircraft.


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