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Supersonic freefall bid put on hold

Sponsor Red Bull says it has stopped work on Felix Baumgartner's planned jump from 23 miles up as it contends with a lawsuit over the project.

Felix Baumgartner and Neil Armstrong
Felix Baumgartner shakes hands with Neil Armstrong in August 2010. Red Bull Stratos

Felix Baumgartner's quest to achieve a supersonic parachute jump has run into some legal turbulence.

Energy drinks maker Red Bull, which is sponsoring the effort, said today that it is stopping the program "with immediate effect" pending the outcome of a "multimillion dollar lawsuit" filed earlier this year by a man claiming certain rights to the project.

Working under the auspices of the Red Bull Stratos program, Baumgartner was aiming to be the first person ever to hit supersonic speeds in the atmosphere without the protection of an aircraft around him. The Austria-born daredevil, who has in excess of 2,000 parachute jumps to his credit--often from stunningly low altitudes--was to ascent to the rarefied height of 120,000 feet (23 miles) in a pressurized gondola below a balloon, and then jump.

In the initial seconds of the return to Earth, while in freefall, Baumgartner was expected to be traveling at better than Mach 1, the speed of sound--that is, approximately 690 miles per hour. He would be wearing a specially designed pressurized suit as protection against the intense cold, lack of oxygen, and unpredictable effects of the air whipping around him, as well as to carry equipment to record his speed and other data.

The jump was to occur sometime in 2010, probably in the skies over New Mexico.

The Red Bull Stratos effort cast Baumgartner as the heir apparent to the legendary Joe Kittinger, who a half-century ago came tantalizingly close to freefalling at supersonic speeds. An Air Force officer, Kittinger was central to early research into the possibilities of manned space flight, and in August 1960 he jumped from an unpressurized balloon gondola at an altitude of 102,800 feet, and reached an estimated top speed of about 614 miles per hour.

Red Bull's terse statement today focused on that historic achievement:

Despite the fact that many other people over the past 50 years have tried to break Colonel (Ret.) Joe Kittinger's record, and that other individuals have sought to work with Red Bull in an attempt to break his record, Mr. Hogan claims to own certain rights to the project and filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit earlier this year in a Californian court. Red Bull has acted appropriately in its prior dealings with Mr. Hogan, and will demonstrate this as the case progresses.

That "Mr. Hogan" is apparently one Daniel Hogan, who reportedly pitched Red Bull on a similar skydiving idea in 2004. Red Bull declined to offer any further specifics.

According to a Courthouse News Service story from April, Hogan's complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court claims that "the daredevil stunt would be worth $375 million to $625 million in advertising to any corporate sponsor." He's reportedly seeking an injunction to halt the Red Bull Stratos project, along with punitive damages and a share of the profits.

Should Baumgartner's jump come to pass, it would answer longstanding questions about whether it's possible for a person to break the sound barrier--and if so, to survive the experience--when not in an airplane or rocket. At a press event in early August to promote the Red Bull Stratos project, former test pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong expressed optimism.

"I think a human can go supersonic; I believe that's true," he said in a statement issued by Red Bull at the time. "There are possible difficulties. I'm not sure they'll exhibit themselves until you are fast enough, or in dense enough air that you start to create shockwaves. And when shockwaves influence your ability to stabilize yourself, that's a difficult area to predict. But I think it's possible."

For more about Baumgartner's effort, see our slideshow above, as well as an interview below that Baumgartner and Kittinger did in May on the CBS Early Show.