Skydiver aims to break sound barrier in free fall

Oct 01, 2012 by Marcia Dunn

His blood could boil. His lungs could overinflate. The vessels in his brain could burst. His eyes could hemorrhage. And, yes, he could break his neck while jumping from a mind-boggling altitude of 23 miles (37 kilometers).

But the risk of a gruesome death has never stopped "Fearless Felix" Baumgartner in all his years of skydiving and leaping, and it's not about to now.

Next Monday over New Mexico, he will attempt the highest, fastest free fall in history and try to become the first skydiver to break the .

"So many unknowns," Baumgartner says, "but we have solutions to survive."

The 43-year-old former military parachutist from Austria is hoping to reach 690 mph (1,110 kph), or Mach 1, after leaping from his balloon-hoisted capsule over the desert near Roswell.

He will have only a pressurized suit and helmet for protection as he tries to go supersonic 65 years after Chuck Yeager, flying an experimental rocket plane, became the first human to go faster than the speed of sound.

Doctors, engineers and others on Baumgartner's -sponsored team have spent as much as five years studying the risks and believe they have done everything possible to bring him back alive. He has tested out his suit and capsule in two dress rehearsals, jumping from 15 miles (24 kilometers) in March and 18 miles (29 kilometers) in July.

Baumgartner will be more than three times higher than the cruising altitude of jetliners when he hops, bunny-style, out of the capsule and into a near-vacuum where there is barely any oxygen and less than 1 percent of the on Earth.

If all goes well, he will reach the speed of sound in about half a minute at an altitude of around 100,000 feet (30,480 meters). Then he will start to slow as the atmosphere gets denser, and after five minutes of free fall, he will pull his main . The entire descent should last 15 to 20 minutes.

He will be rigged with cameras that will provide a live broadcast of the jump via the Internet, meaning countless viewers could end up witnessing a horrific accident.

Baumgartner is insistent on going live with his flight.

"We want to share that with the world," he says. "It's like landing on the moon. Why was that live?"

His team of experts—including the current record-holder from a half-century ago, Joe Kittinger, now 84—will convene inside a NASA-style Mission Control in the wee hours Monday for the liftoff of the helium balloon at sunrise.

"All the things that can happen are varying degrees of bad," offers Baumgartner's top medical man, Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon.

Clark was married to space shuttle astronaut Laurel Clark, who was killed aboard Columbia while it was returning to Earth in 2003, and he has dedicated himself to improving astronauts' chances of survival in a high-altitude disaster.

NASA is paying close attention, eager to improve its spacecraft and spacesuits for emergency escape, but is merely an observer; the energy drink maker is footing the bill and will not say how much it is costing.

The No. 1 fear is a breach of Baumgartner's suit.

If it breaks open—if, say, he bangs into the capsule while jumping or supersonic shock waves batter him—potentially lethal bubbles could form in his bodily fluids. That's what's known as boiling blood. A Soviet military officer died in 1962 after jumping from a balloon at 86,000 feet (26,213 meters); the visor of his helmet hit the gondola and cracked.

During the descent, the temperature could be as low as minus -70. (-56 Celsius). Baumgartner's suit will be all he has between his body and the extreme cold.

Then there's the risk of a flat spin, in which Baumgartner loses control of his body during the free fall and starts spinning. A long, fast spin, if left unchecked, could turn his eyeballs into blood-soaked, reddish-purple orbs, and he could be left temporarily blind. Also, a massive blood clot could form in his brain.

A small stabilizing chute will automatically deploy if he goes into a flat spin and blacks out or otherwise becomes incapacitated. He also has an emergency chute that will automatically deploy if he is unable to pull the cord on his main chute.

Baumgartner's team has a plan for every contingency but one: If the balloon ruptures shortly after liftoff because of a gust of wind or something else, the capsule will come crashing down with him inside. He won't have time to blow the hatch and bail out.

"I have every expectation that he'll come through this successfully based on our analysis," Clark says, "but you know, it still is an unknown."

Kittinger leapt from an open gondola on Aug. 16, 1960, from an altitude of 19.5 miles (31.4 kilometers) and reached 614 mph (988 kph), or Mach 0.9—records that stand to this day. He was a captain in the Air Force, and the military's Excelsior project was a test bed for America's young space program.

Kittinger has been Baumgartner's mentor, signing on with this new project after decades of refusing others' requests.

Fearless Felix insists he would not attempt the jump if the odds were against him.

"I think they underestimate the skills of a skydiver," says Baumgartner, who has made more than 2,500 jumps from planes, helicopters, landmarks and skyscrapers, with no serious injuries.

If he makes it back in one piece, Baumgartner plans on settling down with his girlfriend and flying helicopters in the U.S. and Austria, performing mountain rescues and firefighting.

"After this," he promises, "I'm going to retire because I've been successfully doing things for the last 25 years and I'm still alive."

Explore further: China to send orbiter to moon and back

More information:
Red Bull Stratos: www.redbullstratos.com
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force: tinyurl.com/2dsnn6

5 /5 (3 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Skydiver aims for supersonic plunge on Oct. 8

Sep 25, 2012

(AP)—The countdown is on for skydiver Felix Baumgartner. In just two weeks, the Austrian parachutist will attempt to go supersonic when he jumps from a record altitude of 23 miles (37 kilometers) over the ...

Supersonic Freefall

Apr 06, 2010

The sound barrier was first broken by an aircraft in 1947, but this year a man will attempt to break the sound barrier with his body alone. His freefall jump from the edge of space will not only break records, ...

Recommended for you

'Twisted rope' clue to dangerous solar storms

6 hours ago

A "twisted rope" of magnetically-charged energy precedes solar storms that have the potential to damage satellites and electricity grids, French scientists said on Wednesday.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jeddy_Mctedder
1 / 5 (4) Oct 01, 2012
anyone travelling under mach 5 has no worries about overheating from friction. so essentially they're not really rising to any technological challenge. they are just jumping out of a gonodola above the stratosphere. good for them and i hope they have fun. but they are doing zilch for engineering/science or tech.

this reminds me of james cameron spending milliions to visit the marianas trench. might be fun, but with all that money and support, you'd think they'd choose a more interesting target.
NotAsleep
not rated yet Oct 02, 2012
JM, a naked human being traveling at ground level at mach 1 would likely have their lungs ripped from their body due to the pressure differential, depending on which way they were facing. Who cares about overheating from friction? The technological challenge isn't as involved with friction as it is with keeping the human alive in a cold, low pressure atmosphere for extended periods of time and then relatively suddenly entering a warm, dense atmosphere. There are reasons people don't sky dive from the ISS.

Incidentally, 690 mph does not necessarily equal mach 1... the sound barrier at 100,000 feet is about 671 mph. However, he'll be travelling from less dense air to more dense air so his speed will likely be decreasing as he crosses the sound barrier.