Felix Baumgartner Completes Record Breaking Freefall From Space
Felix Baumgartner went skydiving on Sunday. Lots of people have done that. Lots of people have not gone skydiving from so high up that a spacesuit was required. In fact, only one person has done that – Baumgartner.
Baumgartner completed the Red Bull Stratos mission – a free-fall from 128,000 feet in the air (about 24 miles!) – with only a spacesuit, a parachute, and a lot of guts. He easily broke the record of the highest free-fall jump ever, but that wasn’t the only thing he broke. He also broke the sound barrier, at one point reaching a speed of 833.9 mph.
That’s one man, going 833.9 miles per hour. Not in a vehicle, just in a spacesuit. Falling.
Baumgartner, a former Austrian soldier and current daredevil, was carried up to those heights by a capsule and a massive helium balloon that, when inflated, was as tall as a 55-story building. The balloon was made of thin strips of polyethylene, and rose at an average speed of 1,000 feet per minute. The volume of the balloon was a staggering 30 million cubic feet, and was inflated carefully to allow for expansion at higher altitudes, ensuring that the balloon would not burst. The balloon’s payload was a reinforced, pressurized capsule big enough to hold Baumgartner and not much else. Once the balloon reached peak altitude at about 120,000 feet, Baumgartner was able to pop open the capsule door, look out onto the edge of space, stand up, salute, and hurl himself downward toward the planet (specifically, the desert of New Mexico, near Roswell, the site of mission control).
The star of the show, aside from Baumgartner, was the spacesuit he was wearing. That spacesuit proved that this mission wasn’t all fun and games – it was also a test for what could become the new standard for spacesuits. The spacesuit was pressurized to prevent Baumgartner’s blood tissue turning from liquid to gas at high altitudes, which, needless to say, would have been bad news for the daredevil (just one of the many things that could have killed him on this mission). That spacesuit was also designed to be resistant to extreme temperatures, from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to -90 degrees Fahrenheit. That last number is the most important, because it gets awfully cold up near the edge of space. The spacesuit’s heating systems kept Baumgartner from freezing to death, while cooling systems worked to prevent the visor from fogging up during the jump (which, at one point, failed to happen for a few seconds). The helmet delivered oxygen to Baumgartner from multiple sources from launch to jump to descent.
Should Baumgartner have lost control during the jump, he could have gone into a horizontal spin, increasing the amount of g-forces acting on him and forcing too much blood to rush to his head. As a precaution, his parachute was designed to activate if Baumgartner experienced 3.5 Gs or more for more than six seconds (alternately, Baumgartner could have manually activated the parachute using a button on his glove). He didn’t want to have to do that, though – it would have almost certainly prevented him from breaking the sound barrier. Early in the jump, Baumgartner did feel himself getting stuck in that spin that would have resulted in the parachute opening, but he managed to regain control and, in so doing, break the speed of sound. Even if later on, Baumgartner was for any reason unable to deploy his parachute, a failsafe was built in to launch the parachute at a designated and safe altitude.
During the jump, Baumgartner was able to remain in communication with mission control – specifically, with one man named Joe Kittinger. Kittinger, a retired member of the United States Air Force, is the only man to come close to Baumgartner’s achievement, having jumped from 102,800 feet during an Air Force mission way back in 1960. Kittinger was able to use his unique experience to help talk Baumgartner through his jump.
Aside from the early danger, Baumgartner’s jump went smoothly, as he hurtled back down to Earth in about four minutes. He was able to deploy his parachute between one and two miles above the surface before making a running landing in New Mexico, falling to his knees in a triumph that isn’t likely to be matched or topped anytime soon.