Skydiving from the Stratosphere Austrian Daredevil Aims to Go Supersonic in Freefall
World-renowned BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner now has bigger fish to fry. Later this year, he plans to jump from 36 kilometers above the earth with just a parachute -- and he hopes to break the sound barrier on the way down.
He falls and falls and falls. Eventually he pulls the ripcord, there's a loud whoosh, and the parachute pops out and unfolds. The man dressed in an astronaut's suit floats down to the dusty airfield of Perris, about an hour's drive southeast of Los Angeles.
Men in overalls rush over to him, relieving him of his helmet and parachute. Standing with his legs apart and a broad grin on his face, the man says, "feels like coming home."
The astronaut's parachute jump is the dress rehearsal for a far greater feat. Felix Baumgartner, a car mechanic from Salzburg, Austria, is planning to undertake the longest skydive ever: freefalling back to Earth from the edge of space.
Jumping is Baumgartner's life. As a little boy he would jump out of trees. Later he jumped off cliffs and skyscrapers. Now, standing on the airfield surrounded by BBC cameramen, the 41-year-old is just a hair's breadth away from the jump of a lifetime. Later this year he will jump from an altitude of 36,000 meters (120,000 feet). Only rockets and balloons have so far been able to get that high up into the atmosphere. On the way there, air temperatures could plummet to as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit).
Nobody Knows What Happens
The project is dubbed Red Bull Stratos after the Austrian energy-drink manufacturer whose almost inexhaustible advertising budget is sponsoring the exploit. Baumgartner wants to become the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound without the protection of a metal cockpit. Nobody knows what happens to the human body at this altitude in these icy temperatures and at this speed.
Sitting in an empty airplane hangar for the post-jump evaluation, Baumgartner tells his team, "It's pretty uncomfortable up there." He's just leapt from an altitude of more than 8,000 meters (26,000 feet). Although that's almost the height of Mount Everest, it's still only a quarter of what he is aiming for. Baumgartner isn't really worried about the cold or the thin air. It's the weight of his parachute, the two oxygen tanks he's carrying, and, most of all, the pressurized spacesuit that are causing him problems. "I feel like I've aged 50 years when I'm wearing it," Baumgartner complains.
More than a dozen experts -- coaches, advisors, and test pilots -- make up the extreme jumper's support team. They analyze his jumps and scrutinize videos. The most spectacular footage is shot by Luke Aikins; a bear of a man on the ground, but a veritable ballet dancer in the air, who has jumped alongside Baumgartner on all his test jumps, filming his partner's descent with a camera attached to his helmet.
Sky-diving maneuvers are second nature to Aikins. He knows that if he pulls his arms back he'll nosedive at more than 200 kilometers an hour (125 mph). If he spreads them out in the shape of the cross, his upper body will rise up, slowing his rate of fall. And if he holds them at his side, he'll roll onto his back as if lying on a gigantic air mattress. Aikins is part of a parachuting dynasty. His grandfather, parents, siblings, and cousins have all thrown themselves out of moving planes. He himself grew up on an airfield.
Dancing in Thin Air
Baumgartner sits in a converted portacabin. He is as passive as a boxer between rounds. Many people are busy around him tying his boots, tugging tight the parachute that's out of his reach. Looking a lot like an ungainly Michelin man, he stamps around in his pressurized suit. He even has wing mirrors attached to his gloves so that he can consult the instruments fastened to his chest.
It's Aikins' job to teach the clumsy spaceman how to dance in thin air. After all, he explains, the air in the stratosphere is a hundred times less dense than at sea level. As a result, free-fallers simply plunge helplessly earthward with no wind resistance to help control their flight.
Everything therefore depends on jumping correctly. That means there's no room for spread-eagle pikes like those of cliff divers, but merely a gentle rock forward; a tiny step rather than jerky movements. To practice this, Baumgartner repeatedly had himself hoisted up on a crane and then jumped off on a bungee cord. Each time, the astronaut finished head down, hanging off the rope like a carcass on a hook.
"The most dangerous aspect is the loss of control," Aikins says. "If you start to get into a flat spin, you quickly pass out." Although the emergency system would still release his parachute automatically, a tumbling jumper could easily get tangled up in his own lines. Tied up in his chute like an oversized silkworm, he would then plunge to a certain death.
So far only one person knows what it feels like to tumble helplessly toward the Earth from the edge of space. That man is Joseph Kittinger. Baumgartner calls him Joe. Kittinger has just raced onto the gravel airfield in his Audi TT like a testosterone-fueled teenager. Kittinger is 81.
The Dreaded Flat Spin
"I was the first person in space," he boasts. In 1959, just a few weeks after the Soviet Union had launched its Sputnik satellite into space, Kittinger took a giant leap, plunging from a height of more than 20,000 meters (70,000 feet) protected only by a spacesuit and a prayer.
A helium balloon as high as a tower block carried him up. The jump itself was a nightmare. Kittinger tried desperately to control his descent in the thin atmosphere, but he eventually ended up in the dreaded flat spin, revolving 120 times a minute. When he came to, he was dangling below his parachute, which had opened automatically.
Kittinger, who was a US Air Force test pilot at the time, logged his near-fatal descent as a success, and immediately set about planning his next jump. In August 1960 a balloon took him up to 31,000 meters (102,000 feet), even though he was in excruciating pain: one of his gloves wasn't airtight, and the low ambient pressure made his right hand swell like rising dough.
But Kittinger didn't mention the problem in his last radio transmission inside the balloon's gondola. "The sky above is void and very black, and very hostile," he philosophized instead. "Man will never conquer space. He may live in it, but he will never conquer it." Then he unclipped himself, muttered "Lord, take care of me now," and dived earthwards, faster and faster, eventually reaching a speed of 982 kilometers an hour (614 mph). August 16 of this year will be the 50th anniversary of his record-setting feat.
Baumgartner has set himself the task of beating Kittinger's record. The two men often stand side by side at the test site, Kittinger advising his challenger. "Records are there to be broken," he says sagely.
- Part 1: Austrian Daredevil Aims to Go Supersonic in Freefall
- Part 2: 'You Can't Afford to Make Any Mistakes'