The 120,000-Foot Leap

Can space-diver Felix Baumgartner break the sound barrier without breaking his neck?

Up above 96 percent of the atmosphere, Felix Baumgartner prepares for a 13.5-mile test jump. This summer he’ll leap from nearly twice as high. (Jay Nemeth/Global-Newsroom)
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Update: Baumgartner hopes to make his jump on Sunday, October 14. Check here for the latest news.

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ON THE MORNING OF March 15, 2012, Felix Baumgartner scooted forward, stood up, and grabbed the handrails on either side of the door he’d just opened. From where he was standing, he could see all of New Mexico and parts of Texas, Arizona, and Colorado. He was 71,581 feet —13 and a half miles—above Earth, dangling in a small capsule from a balloon the size of a 16-story building. Facing the cameras mounted on the capsule, he gave a little salute, a bit awkward in his full-pressure spacesuit, and stepped off.

After freefalling for three and a half minutes and reaching a top speed of 364 mph, the Austrian skydiver pulled open his chute and glided safely to the ground. Back at the airstrip where the balloon had launched, near Roswell, New Mexico, the Red Bull Stratos project team at mission control erupted into cheers.

This was only a test jump. Sometime early this summer, Baumgartner will try from 90,000 feet. Then, later in the summer, he’ll jump from more than 120,000 feet, setting, he hopes, a number of world records.

Always ready to sponsor the latest extreme sport, energy-drink maker Red Bull is footing the bill for what began as a personal dream for Baumgartner. An accomplished BASE jumper (someone who parachutes off of Buildings, Antennas, Spans—bridges—and Earth—cliffs), he set his sights in 2005 on breaking the world record for highest skydive. Since then, Red Bull has helped Baumgartner assemble a world-class team of experts, and has paid for the gear and ground support to get him up to 23 miles and back.

One of the first people to congratulate him upon his return to Earth was retired Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger, one of only two other people to have survived a skydive from more than 70,000 feet, and the current record holder (102,800 feet). He’s the Stratos Capcom, or capsule communicator, and he’ll be the voice Baumgartner hears as he makes his balloon ascent.

“Felix is a very fortunate man, just like I was,” says Kittinger. “Freefall for five and a half minutes—that is the absolute fantasy of every skydiver.”

When Kittinger, who early in his Air Force career was a test pilot, set the record back in 1960, it was under slightly different circumstances. The Space Race had just begun, and the U.S. government was in a hurry to find out how humans could survive beyond Earth’s atmosphere. First came a series of manned balloon tests called Project Manhigh, in which human guinea pigs, including Kittinger, climbed into the stratosphere to experience the kind of environment astronauts would face.

At the same time, jet aircraft like the new U-2 spyplane were reaching altitudes of up to 70,000 feet, and the Air Force wanted to know whether pilots could survive a bailout in a near-vacuum. To find out, Kittinger came up with Project Excelsior—a fancy-sounding name for riding in a tiny basket to the edge of space, wearing only the standard partial-pressure suit given to all high-altitude pilots, and jumping out.

Unlike Baumgartner, Kittinger wasn’t an accomplished skydiver—the big jump was only his 33rd. He wanted to prove that any high-altitude pilot could survive a bailout using only standard-issue equipment, plus one important addition: Kittinger’s team designed an automatic, multi-stage parachute system that included a special drogue—a small stabilizing chute—to protect him from a deadly flat spin, one of the many dangers of a long freefall.


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