Daring Austrian base-jumper and skydiver Felix Baumgartner is aiming to break a record that has stood for almost 52 years. In fact he is aiming to break four long established records, starting with world's highest manned balloon flight (120,000 feet or 36,576 meters) highest skydive (currently 102,000 feet ) and the longest freefall, which may well see him break the sound barrier as he plummets for nearly 23 miles (37 km) towards Earth. Last week Baumgartner jumped from 71,581 feet in the first manned flight test by the Red Bull Stratos project, but to reach its ultimate goal the team must beat Joe Kittinger's record for the highest freefall set in August, 1960.

A record that's tough to beat

Kittinger is amazing. He is not only an advisor to the Red Bull team, but is a decorated military pilot as well as the first person to cross the Atlantic solo in a gas balloon. His career includes three combat tours of Vietnam, before he was shot down and spent 11 months as a POW, eventually returning to the USA and retiring as a colonel in the Air Force in 1978. He is still an active pilot, but best remembered for his part in the research into high altitude bale-outs.

Baumgartner's high tech gear is a far cry from Kittinger's 1950's Air Force issue high altitude suit

Leaping from his open gondola at 76,400 feet (23,300 m) on November 16, 1959, Kittinger's very first high altitude jump nearly ended in disaster as he lost consciousness and went into a flat spin that was calculated to have exerted 22 times the force of gravity on his extremities. Fortunately his parachute opened automatically and a year later, he made his final jump from an altitude of 102,800 feet (31,300 m), reaching a speed of 614 mph (988 km/h). During this jump his pressurized right hand glove failed and in the rarefied atmosphere his hand swelled to about double normal size, but he completed the jump to set records for the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall, and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere.

Baumgartner's 71,581 feet test jump

Fast forward 52 years, and the Red Bull Stratos team has just spent five years developing its state-of-the-art, pressurized life-support capsule and space suit, intent on breaking Kittinger's records. Weighing 2,900 pounds (1,315 kilograms) 11 feet (3.4 m) high by 8 feet (2.4 m) wide, the capsule hangs approximately 150 feet (46 m) below the helium-filled balloon which will take it to the edge of space. When Baumgartner jumps, the capsule releases the balloon and returns to Earth via its own parachute. As he leaves the safety of the capsule, Baumgartner relies on his special space suit to protect him from the minus 70 degree F outside temperature.

The Red Bull Stratos team's first manned test flight took place on March 15 over the New Mexico desert. During the jump from 71,580 feet, Baumgartner hit speeds of almost 365 miles per hour and spent 3 minutes and 33 seconds in freefall before his chute opened at 7,890 feet.

The jump went "exactly as planned" although combating the extreme temperatures remains a challenge. "I could hardly move my hands," said Baumgartner. "We're going to have to do some work on that aspect."

Although just a stepping stone towards the 23 mile main event, this successful test means that Baumgartner joins Kittinger and Russia’s Eugene Andreev as only the third person to leap from that altitude and survive.

Another test from the altitude of 90,000 feet is planned before Baumgartner and the Stratos shoot for the record later this year ... and there will be one man with his fingers firmly crossed.

Source: Red Bull