Free fallin': Fearless Felix attempts a great leap forward

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Next Monday if everything goes according to plan, Austrian military parachutist Felix Baumgartner will step from the safety of a helium balloon into a 23-mile free fall to Earth. With that one small step into the void, he will attempt to break the sound barrier -- something usually done from the safety of a modern jet cockpit.

It will take Mr. Baumgartner, who will be wearing a special pressurized suit, 30 seconds to break the sound barrier after stepping into the air. While cruising at roughly 100,000 feet, he will enter the history books as the first human to go faster than the speed of sound while in free fall.

Assuming his eyes haven't hemorrhaged, his blood hasn't boiled and his head is still attached to his body, the view during his historic descent will be awesome. But "Fearless Felix," as he's known around the world, won't be alone. The drop will be broadcast via a live feed to the Internet from strategically placed cameras on his suit.

Thanks to technology, we will either witness a triumph of planning and physical endurance or a tragic act of hubris that rivals the myth of Icarus. Without minimizing the risk, there is something ennobling about what Mr. Baumgartner is attempting to do for 20 minutes as he plunges to Earth.

Humans never tire of pushing the limits of what is possible. That's why we build machines that dive to the deepest parts of the ocean. That's why we're racing to develop technology to send humans to Mars and beyond.

There's no guarantee Fearless Felix will survive the journey, but there's no greater rush than going where no one has gone before.


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