The world’s first supersonic skydiver Felix Baumgartner described his 38.6 kilometre jump from the edge of space as “like hell” but has taken his place in the history books with three new world records.
Clad only in a spacesuit – allbeit a very sophisticated one – he free-fell towards the Earth, reaching speeds of up to 1,343kmh and breaking the sound barrier at Mach 1.24.
The Austrian’s suit contained safety features but he didn’t want to use them.
He explained why: “There was a period of time when I really thought, I’m in trouble. I have a manual push button, where I can release a drogue parachute, which pulls me out of a flat spin, but at the same time I knew if I pushed that button, this is all over, we are not going to fly supersonic.
“Its hard when you fall down at that speed you have to make that decision, somehow you have to make that call, do I push that button and stay alive or do I fight all my weight down and break the speed of sound and after a couple seconds I had that feeling, I get it under control and I did. That’s the reason why we broke the speed of sound today.”
The descent took just over nine minutes, about half of it in freefall. Baumgartner opened his parachute about a kilometre above ground and landed gently in the New Mexico desert.
Fearless Felix jumped exactly 65 years after Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in a rocket powered plane.
His feat provided valuable data for future space exploration.
Technical Project Director Art Thompson said: “That’s really part of what this programme was to achieve, was to show high-altitude egress, passing through Mach and a successful re-entry back. Because our belief is that scientifically, this is going to benefit future private space programmes or high-altitude pilots. And Felix proved that today. He did an outstanding job as a test pilot.”
His giant leap began on board a pressurised capsule carried by a 55 storey helium balloon whose skin was one-tenth the thickness of a sandwich bag.
Dozens of cameras on the capsule, the ground, his suit and a helicopter recorded the event – with a 20 second delay in case things went wrong. The event was watched by a record eight million people in a special live feed via YouTube.
No one else has ever travelled faster than the speed of sound wearing only a high tech suit. So what did it feel like?
Baumgartner was rather blasé: “It’s hard to describe, because I didn’t feel it. When you are in that pressure suit, you don’t feel anything. It’s like being in a cast, it happens somehow, down the line, I don’t know if we have to look at the data, at what point and was I still spinning, or I was already under control. We have to look at the data, but I didn’t feel it at all.
“Of course the thing is, if you want to judge speed, you’ve need reference points, passing by, you have sound or the suit is flapping, I had none of these signs, so you don’t know how fast you travel.”
One of the jump’s scientific goals was to learn more about what such an experience does to the human body.
The success of the mission, and of the suit, also raises the prospect that astronauts might be able to survive a high altitude disaster like the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003 by actually bailing out of their craft.
Baumgartner’s top medical man in the stunt was Dr Jonathan Clark, whose wife Laurel Clark died in the Columbia break up.