There were few sights as thrilling -- or as terrifying -- this year as that ofstepping out of a balloon gondola at 128,100 feet (24 miles) above the Earth. The 43-year-old Austrian daredevil was on a singular mission: to become the first person ever to go faster than the speed of sound in freefall. Why? Essentially, just because. Oh, Baumgartner and his backers at Red Bull Stratos talked a good game about the contributions to scientific understanding of human exposure at such a rarefied and deadly altitude (the "edge of space" they called it, without overmuch hyperbole), with potential benefits for military pilots, astronauts, and the budding population of space tourists. But really, the jump was of a piece with his long, long run of extreme skydives from skyscrapers, bridges, and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
And why not? It was a spectacular feat, plain and simple. Unofficially, yes, Baumgartner did go supersonic, and by a good margin, hitting a peak speed in freefall of 833.9 mph (mach 1.24), according to Red Bull Stratos. (Official recognition by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale is still pending.) And along the way, on that October day, he set several other records as well: freefall from the highest altitude, the longest vertical distance in freefall, the highest manned balloon ascent, and -- thanks to the millions of people riveted at their computer screens -- the most concurrent live video streams ever on YouTube. And now he's onto his next adventure: working as a helicopter pilot, flying mountain rescues. Can't wait to see how he flies those choppers.