One man is set to break a word record by leaping from a plane at over 120, 000 feet, freefalling towards the earth at speeds no human has achieved without a machine. Felix Baumgartner has been preparing in New Mexico and is expected to break the sound barrier when he makes his spacedive later this year.
Felix Baumgartner is a well-known Austrian for many reasons. He once set the record for the lowest BASE jump in the world, the highest parachute jump from a building and was the first person to cross the English Channel in free-fall in 2003. His latest adventure sees him jumping out of a plane on the edge of space, at an altitude of 36.7 km, to enjoy the longest and fastest skydive in history. He’ll break a record held for over fifty years by US Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger, who fell from a height of 31km or 102, 800 feet in 1960, and is one of Baumgartner’s advisors for the project.
Image: Phillip Leara
NASA unsuspectingly created spacediving as the ultimate extreme sport in the 1960s when they began researching and developing orbital escape systems for astronauts. They designed parachutes with personal rockets and inflatable parts to protect astronauts upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. This is where the idea for spacediving was born, and without the technology used to build spacesuits freefalling from these huge heights would be impossible.
Baumgartner will need to wear a pressurised jump suit, which can maintain air pressure and provide an oxygen supply. It’s very similar to space suits worn on spaceshuttles, but even more durable and hard-wearing. If the integrity of the suit is compromised he could be dead in seconds. Human tissue will swell up and the moisture in his face could begin to boil. The suit will also protect him from temperatures as low as minus 70c.
Last month saw Baumgartner put his kit to the test in a preparatory jump in New Mexico from a balloon at a height of 71, 500 feet or 22 km. Eight minutes after jumping he landed safely on the ground, successfully completing the rehearsal for the big jump later in 2012. It’s not known exactly what will happen when he reaches supersonic speeds, as nobody has ever completed a similar jump and there is no method to accurately simulate the experience beforehand.
Skydivers around the world are supporting Baumgartner’s quest, and he has a team of scientists around him to help him plan and execute the jump as safely as possible. His mother, however, as he revealed in this BBC news interview in February, is not entirely happy about it.