Skydiver breaks sound barrier over New Mexico in highest jump ever
With plummet, trailblazer is first to reach supersonic speed by himself
October 15, 2012 4:15 AM
Joerg Mitter/Red Bull Stratos/Associated Press
Felix Baumgartner, left, of Austria and technical project director Art Thompson celebrate after Mr. Baumgartner parachuted safely Sunday into the New Mexico desert about nine minutes after jumping from a capsule roughly 24 miles above Earth, breaking the sound barrier during his plunge.
By Juan Carlos Llorca Associated Press
ROSWELL, N.M. -- In a giant leap from more than 24 miles up, a daredevil skydiver shattered the sound barrier Sunday while making the highest jump ever -- a tumbling, death-defying plunge from a balloon to a safe landing in the New Mexico desert.
Felix Baumgartner hit Mach 1.24, or 833.9 mph, according to preliminary data, and became the first man to reach supersonic speed without traveling in a jet or a spacecraft after hopping out of a capsule that had reached an altitude of 128,100 feet above the Earth.
Landing on his feet in the desert, the man known as "Fearless Felix" lifted his arms in victory to the cheers of jubilant onlookers and friends who closely followed his descent in a live television feed at the command center.
"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," he said after the jump. "The only thing you want is to come back alive."
A worldwide audience watched live on the Internet via cameras mounted on his capsule as Mr. Baumgartner, wearing a pressurized suit, stood in the doorway of his capsule, gave a thumbs-up and leapt into the stratosphere.
"Sometimes we have to get really high to see how small we are," an exuberant Mr. Baumgartner told reporters outside mission control after the jump.
Mr. Baumgartner's descent lasted for just over nine minutes, about half of it in a free fall of 119,846 feet, according to Brian Utley, a jump observer from the International Federation of Sports Aviation. He said the speed calculations were preliminary figures.
During the first part of Mr. Baumgartner's free fall, anxious onlookers at the command center held their breath as he appeared to spin uncontrollably.
"When I was spinning first 10, 20 seconds, I never thought I was going to lose my life but I was disappointed because I'm losing my record. I put seven years of my life into this," he said.
He added: "In that situation, when you spin around, it's like hell and you don't know if you can get out of that spin or not. Of course, it was terrifying. I was fighting all the way down because I knew that there must be a moment where I can handle it."
Mr. Baumgartner said traveling faster than sound is "hard to describe because you don't feel it."
The pressurized suit prevented him from feeling the rushing air or even the loud noise he made when breaking the sound barrier.
With no reference points, "you don't know how fast you travel," he said.
The 43-year-old former Austrian paratrooper with more than 2,500 jumps behind him had taken off early Sunday in a capsule carried by a 55-story ultrathin helium balloon.
His ascent was tense at times and included concerns about how well his facial shield was working.
Any contact with the capsule on his exit could have torn his suit, a rip that could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as minus-70 degrees. That could have caused lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids.
But none of that happened. He activated his parachute as he neared Earth, gently gliding into the desert east of Roswell and landing without any apparent difficulty. The images triggered another loud cheer from onlookers at mission control, among them his mother, Eva Baumgartner, who was overcome with emotion, crying.
Coincidentally, Felix Baumgartner's feat came on the 65th anniversary of the day that U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first human to officially break the sound barrier in a jet.
The dive was, in fact, more than just a stunt. NASA is eager to improve its blueprints for future spacesuits.
Mr. Baumgartner's team included Joe Kittinger, who first tried to break the sound barrier from 19.5 miles up in 1960, reaching speeds of 614 mph.
As Mr. Baumgartner ascended, so did the number of viewers watching on YouTube. Nearly 7.3 million watched as he sat on the edge of the capsule moments before jumping.
After he landed, his sponsor, Red Bull, posted a picture of Mr. Baumgartner on his knees on the ground to Facebook, generating nearly 216,000 likes, 10,000 comments and more than 29,000 shares in less than 40 minutes.
On Twitter, half the worldwide trending topics had something to do with the jump, pushing past seven National Football League games.
This attempt marked the end of a five-year road for Mr. Baumgartner, a record-setting high-altitude jumper. He already made two preparation jumps in the area, one from 15 miles high and another from 18 miles high. He has said that this was his final jump.
Red Bull has never said how much the long-running, complex project cost.
Although he broke the sound barrier, the highest manned-balloon flight record and became the man to jump from the highest altitude, he failed to break Mr. Kittinger's 5-minute-and-35-second longest free fall record. Mr. Baumgartner's was timed at 4 minutes and 20 seconds in free fall.
He said he opened his parachute at 5,000 feet because that was the plan.
"I was putting everything out there, and hope for the best and if we left one record for Joe -- hey, it's fine," he said when asked if he intentionally left the record for Mr. Kittinger to hold. "We needed Joe Kittinger to help us break his own record, and that tells the story of how difficult it was and how smart they were in the '60s."
Mr. Baumgartner has said he plans to settle down with his girlfriend and fly helicopters on mountain rescue and firefighting missions in the U.S. and Austria.