Extreme skydiver Felix Baumgartner has been training for five years -- and enduring delay after delay -- to make a supersonic freefall. On Sunday, October 14, 2012, he gave it his best shot.
The mission ended at 11:17 a.m. PT today when Baumgartner landed. At first, Baumgartner's Red Bull Stratos team said that the unofficial top speed of the freefall was 1,137 kilometers per hour, or 706 miles per hour. Later, they raised that to 1,342.8 km/h, or 834.4 mph.
The team's expectation was that 690 mph would be sufficient to get Baumgartner to Mach 1 -- a somewhat variable standard, depending on elevation, air density, and other factors. But that would handily beat the record for the fastest freefall, which has stood at 614 mph for a half-century.
Baumgartner seems clearly to have set a record for the highest manned balloon flight and the highest freefall, having jumped from at altitude of 128,097 feet. The duration of the freefall, 4 minutes and 19 seconds, was just shy of the record (4:36).
Baumgartner departs the capsule. "The exit was perfect but then I started spinning slowly," he said in a statement after landing. "I thought I'd just spin a few times and that would be that, but then I started to speed up. It was really brutal at times. I thought for a few seconds that I'd lose consciousness. I didn't feel a sonic boom because I was so busy just trying to stabilize myself. We'll have to wait and see if we really broke the sound barrier. It was really a lot harder than I thought it was going to be."
Baumgartner's "mission to the edge of space" is backed by energy drinks maker Red Bull. Among the notable members of the Red Bull Stratos team are, from left, meteorologist Don Day, U.S. Air Force Col. (ret.) Joe Kittinger, technical project director Art Thompson, and high-performance director Andy Walshe.
Kittinger, who's serving as an adviser to Baumgartner, knows a little something about this rare kind of skydive. In August 1960, he jumped from 102,800 feet (19.5 miles) and hit a top speed of about 614 mph, at at time when the Pentagon and the still very young NASA were trying to get a handle on how humans would be affected by high-altitude atmospheric flight and space travel.
The pressure suit that Baumgartner is wearing for the skydive is decked out with five cameras -- one in the chest pack and two on each thigh -- to record the skydive. The capsule that carries him aloft also is packed with a wide array of cameras, as are the project's ground stations and a chase helicopter. It will be a very well-documented event.
The fact that the capsule is pressurized means Baumgartner doesn't have to inflate his full-pressure suit until shortly before he jumps. The capsule and the suit keep him safe from the dangers of the extreme altitude -- lack of oxygen, frigid temperatures, and low, low air pressure that could cause blood to boil.
Baumgartner strikes a contemplative pose after an earlier attempt was aborted on Tuesday, October 9. At the time the mission was scrubbed, he was in the capsule and the balloon was partially inflated. But the conditions proved too breezy for the thin-skinned balloon to be safely inflated; the final blow was a gust at about 22 knots.
Baumgartner enters his capsule. Both the balloon and the capsule are expected to make a return trip to Earth for recovery by the Red Bull Stratos team -- the capsule via parachute after being separated from the balloon, whose helium will be released with the help of a nylon "destruct line."
And here's Kittinger on August 16, 1960, ready to go on the Excelsior III mission. On the threshold of the gondola you can see the words: "This is the highest step in the world."
"When I jumped," Kittinger wrote in Plane & Pilot magazine a couple years ago. "I was thinking simply that it was the beginning of a test. I had done it a hundred times in an altitude chamber and a thousand times in my mind, so I was prepared and confident. But after I jumped, I rolled over and looked up, and there was the balloon just roaring into space. I realized, however, that the balloon wasn't really roaring into space -- I was going down at a fantastic rate! At about 90,000 feet, I reached approximately 614 mph. At that point, my altimeter was unwinding very rapidly, but there was no sense of speed because we determine speed visually when we see something go flashing by, and there were no visual cues."