Felix Baumgartner could be the first person to break the speed of sound with his own body, protected only by a space suit, when he ascends in a capsule to an altitude of 120,000 feet – roughly 23 miles above the Earth’s surface – and steps out into the void. At this altitude, the atmosphere is so thin that from a human’s perspective, it doesn’t exist. Baumgarten will be wearing a space suit, without which survival at that altitude would be impossible. For roughly the first half of his descent, Baumgarten will feel no effects from air resistance, and will fall silently back towards Earth. As no one has successfully jumped from this height before, it’s uncertain what the highest supersonic freefall in history will look or feel like. This animated video gives us a sense of what to expect when the history-making jump takes place later today.
The launch of the balloon was scheduled to take place yesterday at 10:30AM local time from Roswell, New Mexico, but had to be aborted at the last minute due to high winds at 700 feet, the altitude of the balloon’s top as they were filling it with helium. Had they launched, the winds would likely have ripped the fragile gas envelope apart. They’re trying again this morning. Baumgartner and his crew plan to begin the mission in Roswell in the “wee hours,” Red Bull Stratos spokesman Derrick Lerum told SPACE.com. “The timeline isn’t really set in stone because of weather conditions,” he added.
The team is hoping to launch between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. local Roswell time, or 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. EDT (1200 and 1500 GMT).
The balloon carrying Baumgartner’s capsule is 55 stories high, yet its walls are 10 times thinner than a plastic sandwich bag. For the safety of the balloon, wind conditions at launch time can’t exceed 2 mph (3.2 kph).
The skydiver will ride aloft in a specially made 2,900-pound (1,315-kilogram) pressurized capsule.
The mission is called Red Bull Stratos, so it’s pretty clear that Red Bull is paying for all this. The team brings together the world’s leading minds in aerospace medicine, engineering, pressure suit development, capsule creation and balloon fabrication. It includes retired United States Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger, who holds three of the records Felix will strive to break.
Joe’s record jump from 102,800 ft in 1960 was during a time when no one knew if a human could survive a jump from the edge of space. Joe was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and had already taken a balloon to 97,000 feet in Project ManHigh and survived a drogue mishap during a jump from 76,400 feet in Excelsior I. The Excelsior III mission was his 33rd parachute jump. Although researching extremes was part of the program’s goals, setting records wasn’t the mission’s purpose. Joe ascended in helium balloon launched from the back of a truck. He wore a pressurized suit on the way up in an open, unpressurized gondola. Scientific data captured from Joe’s jump was shared with U.S. research personnel for development of the space program. Today Felix and his specialized team hope to take what was learned from Joe’s jumps more than 50 years ago and press forward to test the edge of the human envelope.
Good luck, Felix.