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Felix Baumgartner breaks record for high-altitude skydiving


October 14, 2012

Felix Baumgartner prepares to skydive from an unofficial altitude of 128,097 feet (39 km) (Photo: Red Bull Stratos)

Felix Baumgartner prepares to skydive from an unofficial altitude of 128,097 feet (39 km) (Photo: Red Bull Stratos)

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    "Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are" – Felix Baumgartner, standing outside his capsule at an altitude of 24 miles (39 km) on October 14, 2012.
Well, Felix has gone and done it. Today over the arid countryside near Roswell, New Mexico, the Austrian daredevil successfully accomplished a feat that has been in the works since 2003 – he broke the record for the world’s highest parachute jump, dropping from an unofficial altitude of 128,100 feet (39,045 meters) – about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) higher than expected. In the process, he also became the first skydiver to exceed the speed of sound by reaching an estimated speed of 833.9 mph (1342.8 km/h) while in freefall. That's Mach 1.24 – the first supersonic skydive.

Today’s Red Bull Stratos jump was originally supposed to take place last Monday and then on Tuesday, but was cancelled both times due to inclement weather. The jump was ultimately rescheduled to today, with the actual launch taking place at 9:31 am MDT (3:31 UTC). The ascent took about two and a half hours.

Baumgartner settling into the Red Bull Stratos capsule (Photo: Red Bull Stratos)

Early this morning, Baumgartner climbed into a custom-built fiberglass pressurized capsule, that provided him with oxygen and protection against the cold of the upper atmosphere. Additionally, because it was pressurized to the equivalent of 16,000 feet (4,877 meters) above sea level, it helped protect him from experiencing decompression sickness during his ascent. Although damaged upon landing during the second of two lower-altitude test jumps in July, the capsule was subsequently repaired.

The Stratos capsule just after launch, beginning its journey to an altitude of nearly 25 miles (40 km) (Photo: Red Bull Stratos)

The capsule was attached to a 55-story-tall high-altitude helium-filled polyethylene balloon, with a capacity of almost 30 million cubic feet (849,505 cubic meters). Despite its enormous size, however, the thickness of the balloon’s plastic skin was only .0008 inches (.02 mm) – about 40 percent of the thickness of a Ziploc bag, and equal to three red blood cells placed edge to edge. The balloon used for Tuesday's attempted launch touched the ground during a gust of wind and was destroyed. Fortunately, the Stratos team had an extra balloon and enough helium for another attempt.

Telephoto image of the Red Bull Stratos balloon and capsule as it passes an altitude of 20 miles (32.5 km)

That balloon proceeded to pull the capsule (and Baumgartner) up to the planned altitude, over the course of about two and a half hours. After he carried out the pre-jump checklist (including such items as insuring his emergency knife was secure), Felix stood on the outer step of the capsule for a moment, and then stepped off. Watching the live feed, it was remarkable to see the high speeds he almost immediately attained in the relative absence of air resistance.

Baumgartner about a second after jumping from the Stratos capsule (Photo: Red Bull Stratos)

Shortly after jumping, Felix found himself in a flat spin, a dangerous condition which often requires deploying a drogue parachute to regain control, which would likely have prevented his reaching supersonic speeds. Fortunately, he managed to stop the spin quickly, and retained control for the remainder of the jump. He experienced some fogging and icing of his faceplate during the jump, but this posed little danger to the endeavor.

Felix Baumgartner glides back to Earth following a nearly flawless jump from an altitude of over 24 miles (39 km) (Photo: Red Bull Stratos)

After a bit more than 30 seconds of freefall, Baumgartner accelerated to his maximum velocity, which preliminary mission data set at 833.9 mph (1,342.8 km/h), or Mach 1.24. Given his altitude at this time, his speed corresponded to Mach 1.24 – a clearly supersonic velocity. Felix was in freefall for four minutes and twenty seconds, representing a record duration for jumps not using a drogue parachute to stabilize and slow the fall. After deploying his parachute at about 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), he landed on his feet outside Roswell, then went down on his knees to greet the ground.

Felix Baumgartner greets the ground following a perfect landing (Photo: Red Bull Stratos)

Baumgartner, together with the Stratos team, broke four records today having to do with ballooning and parachuting.

  • Highest manned balloon flight – 128,100 ft (39,045 m)
  • Highest parachute jump – 128,100 ft (39,045 m)
  • Greatest freefall distance – 119,846 ft (36,529 m)
  • Fastest mechanically unaided speed – 833.9 mph (1342.8 km/h)
  • Previously, the highest manned balloon flight was 113,740 ft (34,668 m); the highest parachute jump was 102,000 ft (31,090 m); the fastest speed was 614 mph (988 kph).

    Baumgartner was also aiming to claim the longest duration freefall, but his 4 minutes, 20 seconds freefall fell 16 seconds short of the 4 minutes, 36 second record set by U.S. Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger in 1960. The now 84-year-old Kittinger was at Mission Control and in contact with Baumgartner before his jump.

    Retired US Air Force Major General Chuck Yeager together with "Glamorous Glennis," the Bell X-1 in which he became the first man to break the sound barrier on this day 65 years ago (Photo: NACA)

    As an interesting aside, it was 65 years ago today when Air Force Major General Chuck Yeager became the first man ever to break the sound barrier. Flying the Bell X-1 rocket plane with a set of broken ribs he got the evening before while riding a horse, he had to close the canopy of the X-1 using a broom handle. They approached matters differently back in the day.

    Throughout the project, Baumgartner has maintained that it was more than just a stunt – he hopes that data obtained from the jump could be put towards developing systems that would allow astronauts to escape from malfunctioning spacecraft after launch. Such information might have helped save the crews of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles, and will certainly be needed as commercial space flight makes its entrance.

    Neither records nor science nor applications, however, affect the real impact of today's feat – a brave man testing himself and his technology against Nature. Many people will stand a little taller today as we contemplate the return to Roswell of a humanoid from the edge of space.

    Update: a highlights video of Baumgartner's historic jump can be seen below.

    Update 2: Baumgartner can lay claim to yet another record with Google confirming that a record number of more than eight million concurrent viewers watched his jump on Youtube.

    Source: Red Bull Stratos

    About the Author
    Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

    When he fogged up, I could NOT help thinking of Frank Zappa..and the "Deadly yellow snow" ;-)

    Doc Rock

    I'm still trying to figure out what was achieved! How is this valuable to anyone?


    @yawood Surely technology has done giant leaps in the last 52 years, but Kittinger HAD a spacesuit and a tiny hole in one of his gloves cost him the use of that hand... without a spacesuit back in 1960 he wouldn't have been there yesterday talking to Baumgartner. ;-)

    Giolli Joker

    wow, over 4 minutes of freefall, that would seems like forever! congrats to Felix.

    Derek Howe

    A great effort to be sure, but I still reckon the original jump by Joe Kittinger when he set the record for the highest freefall set in August, 1960 is a far greater achievement.

    Martin Hone

    I agree with Martin. This is a phenomenal achievement but that first jump from 31km was done without a spacesuit and all the paraphernalia that this jump had.

    All the same, congratulations to Felix.


    Update to my comment. I meant that Joe went up in an open basket not that he went up completely unprotected.


    Some one please tell me what happenned when he exceeded the speed of sound? Was there any sonic boom? If not, why not?

    A. Ted Vorachard

    Boy for a guy making history he sure ain't much of a talker.. i saw the whole thing as close to live as possible, and how many times did ground control have to repeat requests before Felix would answer.. i mean.., -Hey Felix.. you're making history here- !.. Can you you try and SAY something?

    And in response to the earlier comment about Joe Killinger, I recall something about that when I was a young 'un, but wouldn't he have been burned up by the atmosphere, even at * his* lower height?

    Doc Rock

    And.. one more thing. If we (in North America) no longer have a shuttle thanks to US cutbacks, why not have all our outdoing ISS 'nauts just, well, jump?

    Doc Rock

    what a bummer! The only big unknown was what happens to the human body when you break the sound barrier. And he apparently did not even realized when he did it!

    Still, a pretty cool jump!


    now what i'd like to know is what special skills are needed for such an exploit besides big balls?

    Cowfy Kaufman

    I have read several of the articles on this jump and not one informs me what happened to the capsule. Is it still up there?


    @ jholman

    The live video I saw was showed the capsule parachuting back to earth; the announcer said that it had been "cut" so that it could come down. I'm guessing an automatic feature so that they can collect all of the information/cameras that were on it. I didn't watch the end of the video so I didn't see it touch ground though.

    @Doc Rock

    I was worried for Felix when he was quiet up there. He seemed irritated and not all there in the head.. But! He made it back safe so that's what matters.

    Cara Johnson

    @Doc Rock, no he wouldnt burn up in the atmosphere... He was not traveling fast enough to compress the air infront of him to the point of combustion.

    @jholman, the capsule was released from the baloon and traveled back down to earth safely with the help of a parachute.

    Gregory Minor

    Joe Kittinger's record still stands at 4 minutes, 36 seconds. I think the coolest thing about all of this is that Joe got to be so involved with the project. That had to be very gratifying for him.

    Reuben Bakker

    "now what i'd like to know is what special skills are needed for such an exploit"

    I'd imagine a strong sense of physics and some formal engineering knowledge directly relevant to the cause. Also, and quite possibly this saved his life, the ability to "right" oneself in air. I got nervous when I saw him tumbling in space and event the announcers voiced concern but he managed to get out of it. Great feat for sure. That's a record worth bragging about and knowing no one is going to break soon, if ever. "Hey honey, buy me a drink? I just flew in from space at over 800 mph and I could use a beer!"

    Michael Shewell

    Ted...probably no sonic boom because of minimal atmosphere at that altitude. In fact, talking about "breaking the sound barrier" in this case is probably inappropriate for the same reason: not enough atmosphere to carry sound at that altitude. On the other hand, it was the lack of air resistance that allowed Felix to accellerate to 800+ MPH with only the pull of gravity.

    Contratulations to Felix.

    Les LaZar

    In 1959, Lt. Col. William Rankin was aloft for 40 minutes bouncing around inside storm clouds like a pea in a whistle after he bailed out of an F8 jet, so I think he should have the "free fall" record. See:

    His book "The Man Who Rode the Thunder" is a great read.

    Jason Kovatch

    The next adventure sport?? Next time add 4 spacedivers?? Awesome. 2 bad camera on suit didnt work on way down from Jump to chute open.

    Stephen Russell

    Les LaZar Thank you kindly, Les. You said "probably..." which to me could mean that no one knows for sure. While everyone seems to be interested in the time the free fall took place as statistics, I, as retired electronics engineer, would really like to know more about what happenned on the way down. At some point, Felix must have hit the atmosphere with increasing resistance while he traveled at over 833.9 mph, His head is protected by the helmet while the rest of his body is protected by the thin space suit which would have pushed against his body with tremendous pressure. Anyway, thank you for your kind help, Les.

    A. Ted Vorachard

    Felix you´re amazing, and surely you're the new millennium prototype of the conquerors. With your jump, you have opened new horizons, new worlds, maybe in your veins there are Christopher Coloumbus or vikings blood, or maybe from Magellans, or maybe your vision will feed new generation goals. Congratulations

    Charly Cuéllar

    @ Donwine - One of the studies I have read about in recent years is the possibility for astronaut egress in the case of trouble on the way up and up to a certain altitude.

    You can bet that there is quite a bit of scientific research going on behind the scenes. It's just a lot easier for Red Bull to generate publicity solely on the premise of a record breaking totally awesome stunt.


    The phrase 'mechanically unaided speed' is key here, as Baumgartner is neither the first person to exceed Mach 1 in free fall (in 1955, George Smith made the first supersonic ejection at a speed of Mach 1.05, losing his boots, socks, flight gloves, ring, watch, and helmet, sustaining severe internal injuries), nor the fastest free fall (in 1966, Bill Weaver and Jim Zwayer were flying SR-71A 61-7952 / 2003 at Mach 3.18 when a severe engine unstart caused a loss of control; Weaver was knocked unconscious when the plane disintegrated around him, leaving him in free fall above Mach 3 before the automatic drogue chute deployed; Zwayer was killed during the breakup of the aircraft).

    And Rankin's record for free fall isn't '40 minutes', although he still beats Kittinger; the article cited above states that his chute hadn't opened after five minutes, then opened in the upper region of a thunderstorm, and he was carried in his chute for more than 30 minutes.

    But neither those records (nor any of the other ejections above Mach 1) were done deliberately and from a standing start, so Baumgartner and Kittinger hold their positions for riding into the upper atmosphere and then stepping out into thin air -- and for Kittinger going up and doing it again when they said they needed more data (although he got a drogue chute to stabilize him on later jumps).


    What happened to the capsule? Did it make a controlled landing somewhere?

    Jason Goldtrap
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