Supersonic skydiver reached 844 mph in record jump (Update)

February 4, 2013 by Marcia Dunn
A Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 file image provided by Red Bull Stratos shows pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria as he jumps out of the capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos. According to the official numbers released Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, the Austrian parachutist known as "Fearless Felix" reached 843.6 mph. That's equivalent to Mach 1.25, or 1.25 times the speed of sound. His top speed initially was estimated last October at 834 mph, or Mach 1.24. (AP Photo/Red Bull Stratos)

Supersonic Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner was faster than he or anyone else thought during his record-setting jump last October from 24 miles (38 kilometers) up.

The parachutist known as "Fearless Felix" reached 843.6 mph (1,357 kph), according to official numbers released Monday. That's equivalent to Mach 1.25, or 1.25 times the speed of sound.

His top speed initially was estimated at 10 mph (16 kph) slower at 834 mph (1,342 kph), or Mach 1.24.

Either way, he became the first human to break the sound barrier with only his body. He wore a pressurized suit and hopped from a capsule hoisted by a giant helium balloon over New Mexico.

Baumgartner was supersonic for a half-minute—"quite remarkable," according to Brian Utley, the record-keeping official who was present for the Oct. 14 feat.

The 43-year-old's heart rate remained below 185 beats a minute, and his breathing was fairly steady.

The leap was from an altitude of 127,852 feet (38,969 meters). That's 248 feet (75 meters) lower than original estimates, but still stratospheric.

"He jumped from a little bit lower, but he actually went a little bit faster, which was pretty exciting," said Art Thompson, technical project director for the Red Bull-sponsored project.

"It's fun for us to see reaching Mach speeds and proving out a lot of the safety systems," Thompson said in a phone interview from his aerospace company in Lancaster, California.

Thompson said everything pretty much unfolded as anticipated, with no big surprises in the final report. The updated records were provided by Utley, official observer for the National Aeronautic Association's contest and records board. Utley was in Roswell, New Mexico, for Baumgartner's grand finale following two test jumps.

Based on all the data collected from sensors on Baumgartner's suit, Utley determined that Baumgartner was 34 seconds into his jump when he reached Mach 1. The speed for breaking the sound barrier depends on the temperature at a given altitude; for Baumgartner, that came together just shy of 110,000 feet (33,528 meters).

He reached peak speed by the time he was at 91,300 feet (27,800 meters), 50 seconds into the jump, and was back to subsonic by 75,300 feet (23,000 meters), give or take, 64 seconds into his free fall.

His entire free fall lasted four minutes, 20 seconds. He used a parachute to cover the final 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), landing on his feet in the desert outside Roswell.

Not everything went well.

In a Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 file photo, Austrian supersonic skydiver Felix Baumgartner greets the audience during the 50th Barborka Rally in Warsaw, Poland. According to the official numbers released Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, the Austrian parachutist known as "Fearless Felix" reached 843.6 mph. That's equivalent to Mach 1.25, or 1.25 times the speed of sound. His top speed initially was estimated last October at 834 mph, or Mach 1.24. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

Baumgartner went into a dreaded flat spin while still supersonic. He spun for 13 seconds at approximately 60 revolutions per minute, making 14 to 16 spins before using his body to regain control, Thompson said. The skydiver was well within safety limits the entire time, he noted. Baumgartner's brain remained under 2G, or two times the force of gravity, during the spin.

If the flat spin had lasted longer and been more severe—exceeding six continuous seconds at 3.5 G—Baumgartner's drogue, or stabilizing, parachute would have deployed automatically. Doctors worried about him blacking out and suffering a stroke or, in the case of a suit tear, his blood boiling at such an extreme altitude. The outside temperature registered as low as minus 96 Fahrenheit (-71 Celsius).

In the foreword of the 71-page report, Baumgartner said he never imagined how many people would share in his dream to make a supersonic free fall from so high.

Some 52 million people watched YouTube's live stream of the exploit.

The scientific and engineering experts who helped bring him back alive "broke boundaries in their own fields just as surely as I broke the sound barrier," Baumgartner wrote.

Baumgartner shattered the previous record set by Joe Kittinger, an Air Force officer, in 1960. Kittinger did not quite reach supersonic speed during his jump from 19.5 miles (31 kilometers) up.

Kittinger noted in the Red Bull Stratos report (Stratos for stratosphere) that future work is needed to test a stabilizing parachute for use at extreme altitudes.

The private project was aimed, from the start, at helping future space crews—whether NASA or commercial—survive high-altitude accidents.

If a highly trained jumper like Baumgartner with 2,500 jumps couldn't prevent a flat spin, "an astronaut, pilot or space tourist could not overcome this spinning probability," Kittinger wrote.

Thompson agreed, noting that given the right safety gear and the right conditions, there's "a remote possibility" a space crew could survive even under such harsh circumstances as were faced by the space shuttle Columbia astronauts.

All seven astronauts perished as Columbia returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003. One of the crew, Laurel Clark, was married to the former NASA flight surgeon who led Baumgartner's medical team, Dr. Jonathan Clark.

"You never know what the possibilities are ... that's the direction we need to look at," Thompson said.

Explore further: Skydiver Fearless Felix jumps from 18 miles up


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3.3 / 5 (6) Feb 04, 2013
faster than thought? (has telepathy been timed?)
Title threw me...
5 / 5 (5) Feb 04, 2013
Imagine what he can tell his grandkids.
"What did you ever do grandpa?"
"I was the first person to break the sound barrier with with just my body. All I had to do was jump from space..."
1 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2013
Is that still impossible to use jettisons around his body to mantain the balanced fall? However I think his instinct save his life. Imagine if spining goes uncontrolled longer he will be confused so much that panic will take over. Happily its not happened otherwise heart rate will jump significantly higher than 185b/min.
Congratulation for him because he was breave enough to step in this capsule when he was still on ground level - from that time he have to jump out anyway, anyhight - as high as dangerous it will be.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2013
Is that still impossible to use jettisons around his body to mantain the balanced fall?

There's several possibilities that will be explored in the future. I'd guess small gyroscopes, or simply venting part of he oxygen supply in a particular direction. I don't think that throwing anything more substantial than gas from the suit will be implemented - as you could only do that a very limited amount of times and not in a very controlled way.

As soon as you hit atmosphere a drogue chute becomes somewhat effective.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2013

The problem is not that it is impossible to end the spin, but that you don't have too many seconds for trial and error before you pass out.

With adequate training in a vertical supersonic wind tunnel (which don't yet exist, as far as I know), it would be easy to learn what to do about the spin. Essentially it's all about using your arms, legs and body to counteract the spin.

(And yes, you would have to use weights in your suit in the wind tunnel because the air is thicker at ground level.)

The other solution of course would be computer simulations, but I don't know how good they are for this task.

4 / 5 (4) Feb 05, 2013
Using your arms and legs at that altitude isn't going to do anything. The atmosphere up there is so thin that you have no resistance to work against (spreading out as far as you can will allow you to spin as slowly as possible, but there's no way to slow down beyond that until atmospheric pressure rises lower down - and by that time it'll be too late)

Three miniscule gas exits (or one with a vectoring nozzle) and a controller that needs not be more powerful than a smartphone with three acceleration sensors could automatically stabilize a suit in no time.

And since you don't know what condition a person will be in after an emergency exit (injured? unconscious?) I think we'll want a fully automatic system.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2013
It's simple to stabilise him - tie a big long ribbon between his feet and let him drop like a kite.

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