Felix Baumgartner Shatters World Record With 24-mile Leap

1:50 PM, Oct 14, 2012   |    comments
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ROSWELL, N.M. (USA Today) -- Moments before stepping off a small metal platform near Roswell, N.M., on Sunday and plunging to earth from 24 miles in space, Austrian sky diver Felix Baumgartner offered a few static-filled words for posterity.

"Sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you are," said Baumgartner, 43. Then he jumped, a diminishing white dot against an impossibly black sky.

While his ode to Neil Armstrong's famous moon landing pronouncement was poignant, it's not entirely accurate.

With this leap from 128,000 feet, Baumgartner becomes a larger-than-life figure in aerospace history, joining the ranks of those who have pushed personal and technological limits as they tempted fate and tested science.

Adding to his inevitable fame is the fact that the feat was streamed live on computers and smartphones around the world using more than 30 high-definition cameras arrayed on the ground as well as in and outside of his capsule. A two-hour BBC documentary will hit TV soon, and there surely will be the inevitable chats with talk show hosts and calls from admirers such as Tom Cruise.

But so far none of that seems to be getting to Baumgartner's buzz-cut head.

Baumgartner's jump was possible partly due to an expensive operation packed with top scientists, but also due to the pioneering work of adventurers past, says Margaret Weitekamp, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum focusing on popular culture and space flight.

"In many ways, Felix was standing on the shoulders of giants," she says. "Baumgartner himself will be advancing the science of how the human body responds to the upper atmosphere, just as many test pilots did before him."

She notes that, significantly, the medical director for the Stratos team is Jonathan Clark, who became keenly interested in high altitude survivability issues after his wife, Discovery space shuttle flight surgeon Laurel Clark, died when her craft broke up upon re-entry in 2003.

"Felix follows in a great tradition of people putting their lives on the line to learn new things," says Weitekamp. "The only difference is that I could watch him do this on my phone while running errands, which truly made me feel like I'm living in the future."

The event seemed to be an irresistible blend of space derring-do and extreme sports insanity, particularly at the moment when Baumgartner could be seen standing on the edge of space in frightening HD clarity.

"I was actually scared at that point," says Clara Moskowitz, assistant editor at Space.com. "I know he captured the attention of a lot of people, because I had friends who have no interest in space emailing and texting me. This was a human being literally stepping into the unknown. It doesn't get more intense than that."

The Austrian skydiver's leap Sunday beat the record set by retired Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger, who in 1960 plunged out of an open basket from 102,800 feet. Kittinger served as a mentor to Baumgartner throughout the five-year project.

The mission, dubbed Red Bull Stratos after the Austrian energy drink company that sponsored the jump, also set records for highest manned balloon flight (113,740 feet in 1961) and fastest freefall (Kittinger at 614 mph). Baumgartner reached 833.9 mph; poignantly, he fell at supersonic speeds on the same date in 1947 that test pilot Chuck Yaeger broke the sound barrier in an aircraft.

Red Bull Stratos marks yet another aerospace advance by a private company, filling the void left by the massive state-sponsored space initiatives that once were the hallmark of American and Russian scientific programs. Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic remain dedicated to putting civilians in space, and Stratos' mission was to test how humans and space suits would react to emergency exits at high altitude.

Baumgartner's jump was not without drama. He complained about a lack of heat in his helmet on the way up, which caused mission engineers to debate whether or not to bring him down in the capsule. Then, on the descent, the skydiver could be seen by an infrared camera as a tiny white dot against a black backdrop spinning wildly, precisely the situation the team was hoping to avoid as it could lead to a loss of consciousness or worse.

But Baumgartner got that spin under control, and minutes later landed gracefully on his feet in the dusty New Mexican desert. The skydiver immediately fell to knees. Cameras trained on his family - who had never been to the United States before - showed his parents, brother and his girlfriend cheering.

Baumgartner has been working his way up to this world record jump from the edge of space for the past few years, twice running into speed bumps.

Austrian promoter Daniel Hogan derailed the first mission when he sued Red Bull Stratos claiming he'd thought of the idea first. That suit was settled out of court last summer.

The other hiccup was more serious. Unaccustomed to freefalling while confined by a helmet and cumbersome suit, Baumgartner started suffering panic attacks and pulled himself off the project. He overcame his fears with the help of a sports psychologist.

"It was simple stuff," Baumgartner told USA TODAY in August after making his final test jump -- from nearly 100,000 feet. "I'd put on a helmet and tell him, from one to 10, how panicked I felt. And in the end, no matter what the number was, he told me my pulse rate never changed. So it was all in my head."

For a quick primer on how Baumgartner worked his way up to this historic jump, head to YouTube. He broke through the extreme sports world clutter in 1999, when he jumped off the world's tallest building (Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers, 1,483 feet) and dove off Rio de Janeiro's 130-foot Christ the Redeemer statue (the video shows him scurrying directly into a waiting getaway car before police can arrest him).

Red Bull, known for sponsoring extreme athletes, promptly signed up Baumgartner, who finally realized he could make a living off doing dangerous things. Curiously, he doesn't come from a risk-taking family; his brother is a chef, and the rest of his family "doesn't even ski," he says.

In 2007, he and Red Bull decided to make an assault on Kittinger's 52-year-old record. Kittinger, who had made his pre-Mercury program jump with rudimentary equipment, had long resisted efforts to recruit him to help others break his record. But ego wasn't the issue, it was a lack of capital and seriousness that always caused him to say no.

"This whole deal is very expensive," Kittinger told USA TODAY. "If what I rode into space was a Model T, this is a Ferrari."

But while the Ferrari easily delivered the victory Sunday, don't look for its driver to do anything like this again.

"This is the end of my journey," he says. "I've always been trying to find my limit, and this pretty much it. For the second half of my life, I want to be a good helicopter pilot. Fight fires. Rescue people. That would be fun."

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