Baumgartner's supersonic skydive scrapped for today

The daredevil parachutist wants to be the first person ever to hit Mach 1 in a freefall. But today's jump has been aborted because of gusting winds.

Felix Baumgartner with cameras
Felix Baumgartner will have five cameras on him to record his historic skydive, whenever it finally takes place. Red Bull Stratos

Last update: 10:55 a.m. PT.

Felix Baumgartner wants to make history as the first person to achieve supersonic speed in freefall, but that won't happen today.

At about 10:45 a.m. PT, with Baumgartner in his capsule and his balloon just beginning to be inflated, the decision came to abort the mission because of gusting winds.

The liftoff had been scheduled to begin at about 5:30 a.m. PT, but was delayed as the weather conditions at the launch site in Roswell, N.M., failed to cooperate. Tomorrow's weather is apparently not looking favorable, and no date has yet been set for another try. The attempt had initially been scheduled for yesterday morning.

The daredevil's bid to go supersonic is coming after years of intense preparation and frustrating delays . And it's replete with a full array of high-tech gear, from the 2,900-pound "space capsule" slung under a 550-foot-tall (at launch) helium balloon that will carry him aloft in an approximately 2-hour ascent, to the custom-made full-pressure suit that will protect him from the very real dangers of the thin and frigid air.

Besides hitting the unprecedented freefall Mach 1 speed, the plan calls for Baumgartner to start his descent from higher than anyone else has ever ascended in a manned balloon flight: 120,000 feet, or 23 miles above the Earth.

There's more than mere bragging rights behind the extreme altitude as the starting point. It's also a practical consideration, with two key components: air temperature and air density. In the subzero stratospheric atmosphere, sound travels more slowly, so Baumgartner doesn't have to travel quite as fast to go supersonic -- his backers reckon he'll need to hit 690 mph to achieve Mach 1. And the thin air at that altitude is less dense, so that there's less resistance to a body moving through it.

Whenever the jump finally occurs, the 43-year-old Baumgartner will need to exercise some serious body control to get into the most streamlined position possible for his freefall, which is expected to last roughly 5 minutes, 35 seconds (which also would be a record, outdoing the existing mark by a full minute). It all starts with making a precise exit from the capsule -- something he has rehearsed over and over again -- and he won't have to wait long to hit his top speed.

"If calculations prove to be accurate, and Felix is successful in his attempts to control his position," the Red Bull Stratos site explains, "he will accelerate from standstill to the speed of sound -- that's 0 to approximately 690 miles per hour in 40 seconds or less."

Sensors in a chest pack will log all the relevant data for vetting by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the body that governs air sports and aviation records. Gear in the pack includes GPS tracking device, inertia measurement unit, HD camera, and voice transmitter and receiver.

Eventually, Baumgartner would deploy his parachute, at about 5,000 feet above ground, for the final part of his descent. To open that main chute safely, he'll have to have slowed to about 172 mph.

The mission will be well-documented. Here's the array of cameras, including five on Baumgartner himself, that will be recording the ascent and descent:

Baumgartner's capsule is equipped with nine HD cameras, three digital cinematography cameras and three high-resolution digital still cameras. On his pressure suit, he wears five small HD video cameras - two on each thigh and one on his chest pack. In the air the helicopter, which will track both Baumgartner and the capsule, is equipped with a gyro-stabilized Cineflex HD camera and two interior HD cameras. The mission's two ground-based optical tracking systems, which are mobile, each include an HD P2 camera, a 4K camera, a shortwave infrared camera and a digital still camera - with a variety of high-power zoom lenses and large telescopes. To receive the live signals, a dedicated radio communications system had to be set up, including both fixed and mobile units in a range of 200 miles around Roswell.

Baumgartner's eventual jump may turn out to be record-setting, but it's not completely unprecedented. In August 1960, Air Force officer Joe Kittinger set the enduring standard by jumping from 102,800 feet (19.5 miles) and hitting a top speed of about 614 mph. That effort came in the early days of the space race -- eight months before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space -- as researchers sought to learn whether it was possible for a pilot, or an astronaut, to safely eject at such rarefied heights.

The Red Bull Stratos project lays claim to advancing the science of aerospace safety. "The mission's findings may point the way toward developing escape systems for the space tourists of the future, as well as for the pilots and astronauts who already need suborbital systems today," the site says.

The dangers to the human body way, way up in the stratosphere are legion, from extreme cold to lack of oxygen to the low, low air pressure that could, in effect, cause a person's blood to boil.

Mix in supersonic speed, and the risk only gets that much more outrageous. As Baumgartner told NPR in an interview in May, "Well, mostly, the scientists, they think you cannot maintain your normal freefall position, so [you] would start flat-spinning. And if that occurs and it's faster than 150 RPM, there's only one way for your blood to leave your body, and that's through your eyeballs."

But Baumgartner, an accomplished BASE jumper, is no stranger to extreme skydiving. In 2007, for instance, he jumped from Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan (1,669 feet), at that time the world's tallest building, and in 2004 he jumped into Marmet Cave in Croatia's Velebit National Park (623 feet deep). He also has used carbon wings to make a freefall flight across the English Channel .

Editors' note: The original version of this story was posted at 3:11 a.m. PT, under the headline "Baumgartner gives supersonic skydive a go."

Update at 6:20 a.m. PT: The start of the ascent has been delayed twice this morning because of winds. The team had first eyed a delayed launch no later than 7 a.m. PT, but has postponed it a second time -- this time to 10:30 a.m. PT, pending cooperative weather.

Update at 8:38 a.m. PT: The weather is looking favorable, and preparations are proceeding apace. "Countdown is officially back on. Felix is in his suit and expected launch at 11:15 am MDT," Red Bull Stratos just tweeted. (That's 10:15 a.m. PT.)

Update at 10:17 a.m. PT: Baumgartner is in the capsule and the ascent is about to begin.

Update at 10:43 a.m. PT: The jump has been aborted for today because of gusting winds.

About the author

Jonathan Skillings is managing editor of CNET News, based in the Boston bureau. He's been with CNET since 2000, after a decade in tech journalism at the IDG News Service, PC Week, and an AS/400 magazine. He's also been a soldier and a schoolteacher, and will always be a die-hard fan of jazz, the brassier the better.

 

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