By Frisco Rosso
Yesterday, Felix Baumgartner astonished viewers and made headlines around the world as he became the first man to break the sound barrier in an incredible fashion. Rising to the stratosphere in a specially designed capsule, he jumped from a height of 39 kilometres (24 miles), before descending at a top speed of 834 miles per hour – 1.24 times the speed of sound. He has also broken the record for the highest ever freefall.
The following video speaks for itself.
It took just 10 minutes for Baumgartner to return to earth following a climb of roughly two and a half hours. After deploying his parachute and landing safely on his feet in the New Mexico desert, the 43-year old was seen dropping to his knees and raising his arms in triumph.
The Austrian had initially hoped to break the longest freefall record set by Colonel (then Captain) Joseph Kittinger in 1960 of 4 minutes 36 seconds, but technical problems meant Baumgartner was forced to activate his chute after 4 minutes 17 seconds, which was fully deployed after 4 minutes and 19 seconds. Kittinger had also held the previous records for the highest ascent and highest parachute jump when he jumped from an altitude of 31.3km. The now retired colonel served as part of Baumgartner’s 100-strong support team and was in constant contact radio contact with him during the ascent.
“Let the guardian angel take care of you,” were Kittinger’s words to Baumgartner just before he jump.
Baumgartner was able to elevate to the historic height from Roswell, New Mexico, thanks to a 30 million cubic-foot helium balloon which was roughly the thickness of a dry cleaner bag. The Austrian wore a full-pressure suit, similar to that astronauts have worn during shuttle launches. Engineers also designed and manufactured the pressurised capsule suspended beneath the balloon that carried Baumgartner.
It was essential for Baumgartner to maintain a controlled dive from the capsule, as the prospect of spinning out of control would have exerted severe G forces and made him lose consciousness. In the most horrendous case, the skydiver’s blood would have boiled had tears or cracks appeared in his suit during descent, due to rapid depressurisation at the extreme altitude.
The mission was almost aborted during ascent when a heater in Baumgartner’s faceplate failed, causing his visor to fog up as he breathed.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference following the leap, Baumgartner said: “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 decided to jump. And it was the right decision.”
There was also alarm shortly after the jump as he appeared to lose control of the dive. Footage shows the skydiver rapidly rotating as he fell when he needed to be in a delta position (head down with arms swept back). However, the Austrian’s experience, garnered from over 2,500 career dives enabled him to regain control and stabilise his position.
Baumgartner’s achievement is no mere attention-seeking stunt devised to separate mere mortals from supermen, although he had said much of his drive came from the urge to see what no other being has been able to from the highest reaches of the sky.
Spokespersons from the Red Bull Stratos project stated that the jump and prior preparation has provided vital data for high-altitude and performance systems development and valuable information for emergency evacuation from spacecraft and other manned vessels operating in the stratosphere.
There is limited data available concerning pilots who are exposed to supersonic airflow in the event of aircraft disintegration, or the effects on the body as it reverts from supersonic to subsonic in freefall. It is hoped that Baumgartner’s feat will fill in some of the blanks that have puzzled engineers and physicists in this regard and pave the way for safer aviation and space exploration practices.
Nasa and related aviation companies have reportedly followed the project closely and have asked to be kept abreast of mission findings.
“It’s way more difficult than anything I’ve done before. I think I’m done,” said Baumgartner at the press conference. This remains to be seen of course, although it is unlikely his extraordinary feat will ever be repeated.
With more tension than your mother’s suspension, I am Frisco Rosso. I’m likely to deliver a few lines worth at any given moment regarding film, music, sport, books and anything morally unsound that strikes a blow between the eyes in the name of entertainment.