Tuesday, Oct. 9, will be a momentous day for Austrian adventurer Felix Baumgartner. That’s when he will attempt to break the world record for highest-ever skydive, leaping from a balloon nearly 23 miles above Earth’s surface. It’s known as the Red Bull Stratos Challenge, and Baumgartner has been preparing for his attempt for years.
The jump was supposed to happen today, but weather conditions delayed the attempt. The team expects conditions to clear up considerably by Tuesday. If so, around dawn, a huge helium-filled balloon will lift off from Roswell, N.M., carrying Baumgartner and his custom-built 2,900-pound (1,315 kilograms) capsule to an altitude of 120,000 feet (36,576 meters).
If Baumgarten succeeds, it will be
the first supersonic parachute jump. Note the qualifier: a former
Blackbird SR-71 pilot, Bill Weaver, is the only known person to travel
at more than Mach 1 in the Earth’s atmosphere and survive, in just a
flight suit. But it was an accident, not a deliberate jump. Weaver was
forcibly ejected from his damaged plane; his copilot died in the
Those qualifiers can become pretty nuanced when we’re talking about setting world records. Baumgarten is attempting to break the one set back in the late 1950s, when Air Force captain Joe Kittinger made a series of high-altitude parachute jumps from the open gondola of a helium balloon as part of “Project Excelsior.” It was part of ongoing research into how the human body reacts to high altitudes, crucial preparation for future manned space exploration.
Kittinger’s first jump, on Nov. 16, 1959, nearly ended in disaster. He jumped from 76,000 feet, but his parachute malfunctioned and opened early, catching on his neck. He spiraled and lost consciousness, despite wearing a specially designed pressurized suit, and was only saved when his backup parachute activated at 10,000 feet. (Unofficial estimates for the G forces he experienced were on the order of 22 times that of earth’s gravity.) Undeterred, Kittinger jumped again one month later, from an altitude of 74,700 feet.
Kittinger’s record-setting dive occurred on Aug. 16, 1960, from a dizzying altitude of 102,800 feet — at the very edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. He spent 12 very uncomfortable minutes at that altitude, experiencing temperatures of minus 94 degrees F, and pain from a malfunctioning pressurized glove.
Then he jumped, and was in freefall for a full five minutes before it was safe to pop his parachute. He reached speeds of 614 mph, the fastest speed yet attained by a man in the atmosphere.
However, not even Kittinger holds the record for the world’s longest freefall — not if you consider the use of a drogue chute to stabilize the jumper during freefall to be, well, a bit of a cheat.
If you do accept that premise, then the record holder (according to Guinness Book of World Records) is a Russian, Eugene Andreev, who jumped from a Volga balloon at an altitude of 83,523 feet and fell for 80,380 feet before deploying his parachute, way back on November 1, 1960, near Saratov, Russia.
So even if Baumgarten gets to make his attempt, and succeeds, Andreev’s record will still hold: Baumgarten’s equipment includes an aerodynamic drogue parachute. Still, at least he’ll finally surpass Kittinger’s historic freefall.
Image: (top) Felix Baumgartner, left, shakes hands with United States Air Force Col.(Ret.) Joe Kittinger, right, following the October 2010 Red Bull Stratos press conference announcing Baumgartner’s intent to break the record (AP Photo) (bottom) Still shot of Kittinger’s historic jump.