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Baumgartner makes record-setting skydive

The extreme skydiver sets a record for the highest manned balloon ascent and highest freefall in his bid to go supersonic.

Jon Skillings Director of copy editing
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is director of copy editing at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing tech publications back when the web was just getting under way. He writes occasionally, on topics from GPS to James Bond.
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  • 30 years experience at tech and consumer publications, print and online. Five years in the US Army as a translator (German and Polish).
Jon Skillings
6 min read
Felix Baumgartner jumps
Felix Baumgartner exits his capsule at around 128,000 feet. Red Bull Stratos

Latest update: October 15 at 5:38 a.m. PT

One false start was enough for Felix Baumgartner.

On Sunday, the 43-year-old extreme skydiver ascended to the upper reaches of the atmosphere above Roswell, N.M., in a bid to come racing back down in a supersonic freefall.

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 had stood at 614 mph for a half-century.

Felix Baumgartner in freefall
Felix Baumgartner in freefall on Sunday, October 14, as seen via infrared tracking camera. Red Bull Stratos/Screenshot by CNET

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).

Those figures are all preliminary and will be vetted by the appropriate governing bodies.

So how was it for the skydiver himself?

"First we got off with a beautiful launch and then we had a bit of drama with a power supply issue to my visor," Baumgartner said in a statement. "The exit was perfect but then I started spinning slowly. 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."

The total duration of the descent was 9 minutes, 3 seconds.

Felix Baumgartner's historic skydive (pictures)

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Baumgartner nearly got off the ground on Tuesday. The massive but thin-skinned polyethylene balloon that was to carry him aloft was partially filled, and he was already ensconced in the capsule slung below it, when gusty winds forced the cancellation of that day's ascent.

There's a certain irony to the mission's sensitivity to wind gusts. Baumgartner, after all, was plummeting through the sky at a far, far faster pace, even after he eventually deploying his parachute. But there is no skydive at all if the equipment is damaged in the setup phase.

Felix Baumgartner in his capsule
Felix Baumgartner in his capsule. Red Bull Stratos

The mission is a momentous one, with roots stretching back to the earliest years of the space race. Baumgartner was setting out to set four records: the fastest freefall (an unprecedented Mach 1), the longest sustained freefall, a free fall from the highest-ever starting point, and the highest ascent in a manned balloon.

Baumgartner today made a two-hour-plus ascent to an altitude of approximately 128,000 feet, or about 24 miles. At that point, he stepped out into the open air in a carefully choreographed maneuver to get his body into the proper position for the freefall. In the thin stratospheric air there, he'll encounter very little wind resistance, which will help in his quest to get to 690 mph -- the approximate speed of sound at that frigid elevation.

At that altitude, a person needs a helmet and full pressure suit and other gear to protect against the dangers of too little oxygen, too little air pressure, and subzero temperatures. A chest pack in Baumgartner's rig will log the data needed for the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the body that governs air sports and aviation records, to certify his achievements. Gear in the pack includes a GPS tracking device, inertia measurement unit, HD camera, and voice transmitter and receiver.

On the morning of Sunday, October 14, in the skies above Roswell, N.M., Baumgartner's balloon makes its ascent. Red Bull Stratos/Screenshot by CNET

The pressure suit also has five cameras -- one in the chest pack and two on each thigh -- to record the skydive. The 2,900-pound, tech-laden capsule also is tricked out 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.

Both the balloon and the capsule are expected to make a return trip to Earth for recovery by Baumgartner's team. The Red Bull Stratos site (yes, he's backed by the maker of energy drinks) describes the process this way:

After Felix has landed, Mission Control will trigger the separation of the capsule and balloon, so that the capsule can descend under its parachute. A nylon 'destruct line' will release the helium so that the balloon returns to Earth. Then, the team will gather the envelope into a large truck, a process that can take several hours."

Baumgartner, a veteran of well more than 2,300 skydives who has been training for this moment for five years, was looking to surpass milestones established more than 50 years ago. In August 1960, Air Force officer Joe Kittinger jumped from 102,800 feet (19.5 miles) and hit a top speed of about 614 mph, as 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. (Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin wouldn't become the first person in space until eight months later.)

Kittinger is now a prominent adviser to Baumgartner and Red Bull Stratos.

Tuesday's attempt was scrubbed when a wind gust hit 22 knots as the massive balloon -- measuring 750 feet tall, including the capsule below, and stretching to 30 million cubic feet when filled -- was being inflated on an airfield tarmac. The air needs to be virtually still during that phase of the operation.

"As we inflated the balloon and got Felix into the capsule at about 11:42 a.m. [local time], we experienced a gust of wind that took us above 22 knots at the peak of the balloon," Red Bull Stratos Project Director Art Thompson said in a statement. "The integrity of the balloon at that point is really unknown and unacceptable to use for manned flight because we were not sure what would happen as we launch. Our biggest problem was the wind at the 750-foot level."

Red Bull Stratos said the wind gust had "dangerously twisted" the balloon.

The delay of the launch to today has helped deepen the historical resonance of the jump. It was 65 year ago today that Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier, ever, doing so in the rocket-powered X-1 aircraft.

For a supersonic skydive, first comes practice (photos)

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Update October 15 at 5:38 a.m. PT: Added adjusted top freefall speed of 1,342.8 km/h, or 834.4 mph.

Update October 14 at 5:13 p.m. PT: Added post-jump quote from Baumgartner.

Update 11:25 a.m. PT: The Red Bull Stratos team says Baumgartner has broken the record for the highest manned balloon flight, having surpassed 113,740 feet on his way to roughly 128,000 feet, and that should also set the record for the highest freefall. His freefall time of 4 minutes, 22 seconds does not break the record for the longest freefall (4:36). It remains to be determined whether he went supersonic or broke the speed record, but he was freefalling at more than 600 mph.

Update 11:17 a.m. PT: Baumgartner has landed.

Update 11:12 a.m. PT: Parachute has deployed.

Update 11:08 a.m. PT: Jump under way.

Update 11:07 a.m. PT: Felix on doorstep, ready to jump.

Update 10:43 a.m. PT: The decision has been made to jump, despite some trouble-shooting with the face mask. The egress checklist has begun. Balloon is at just over 122,000 feet, nearing maximum altitude.

Update 10:20 a.m. PT: Baumgartner has passed the 100,000-foot mark in his ascent.

Update 8:44 a.m. PT: The ascent has begun.

Update 8:14 a.m. PT: The balloon is being inflated, a process that takes about 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Update 5:41 a.m. PT: The balloon ascent will begin no earlier than 7 a.m. PT / 10 a.m. ET, delayed from 5:30 a.m. PT / 8:30 a.m. PT because of breezy conditions. "Winds at 13 knots at balloon top: 10 is max for launch. Team is optimistic for earliest launch 8 am MDT," per a @redbullstratos tweet just a little bit ago.