An Austrian adventurer was preparing to skydive from a balloon flying 37km above New Mexico yesterday, seeking to break a long-standing altitude record — and the sound barrier — in the process.
Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old helicopter pilot, hot-air balloonist and professional skydiver, would become the first person to freefall from that high up in the stratosphere, a region more like the vacuum of space than the oxygen-rich atmosphere closer to Earth.
Weather will be key. Baumgartner’s team decided to wait out a cold front moving through the area on Monday before launching the massive but fragile helium balloon that was to carry him to an altitude of 36,576m above Roswell, New Mexico.
Weather depending, the balloon was set to be launched at dawn yesterday. It takes about two-and-a-half to three hours to reach 36,576m.
The 850,000m3 plastic balloon, which is about one-tenth the thickness of a Ziploc bag, cannot handle winds greater than 9.7kph. The balloon will carry a specially made space capsule where Baumgartner will spend the ride into the stratosphere.
Baumgartner hopes to break the current record of 31,333m for the highest-altitude freefall, a milestone set in 1960 by US Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger.
By jumping from 36,576m Baumgartner would also break the sound barrier. With virtually no air to cushion his fall, he was expected to reach the speed of sound, which is 1,110kph at that altitude, after about 35 seconds of freefall.
He was set to stay supersonic for nearly a minute and should freefall for a total of five minutes and 35 seconds.
When Baumgartner jumps from the capsule, the position of his body is crucial, since there is no air for him to move around in. If he falls in a way that puts him into a rapid spin, Baumgartner could pass out and risk damaging his eyes, brain and cardiovascular system.
Baumgartner’s safety gear includes a custom spacesuit to protect him from the low pressure and the extreme cold. Temperatures are expected to be as low as about minus-57°C.
The near-vacuum puts him at risk of an ebullism, a potentially lethal condition in which fluids in the body turn to gas and the blood literally boils. Severe lung damage could occur within minutes.
Helicopters equipped with newly developed instruments to treat lung damage were to be standing by during Baumgartner’s skydive.
“What we’re doing here is not just a record attempt. It’s a flight test program,” project adviser Jonathan Clark, a medical doctor and former NASA flight surgeon, told reporters during a news conference on Monday.
Among those interested in the spacesuit research are commercial companies developing spaceships for passenger travel. The research could help people survive a high-altitude accident.
Clark’s wife, shuttle Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark, died along with six crewmates when the spaceship broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, as it headed for a landing in Florida.
Baumgartner’s jump is sponsored by the beverage company Red Bull, which was to webcast the event live at redbullstratos.com