Felix Baumgartner is about to perform one very dangerous feat in his giant helium balloon. Moments ago Baumgartner’s balloon has left the ground at Roswell, New Mexico, and is currently on a climb that should take it to more than 120,000ft (36.5km). No matter how you look at it a 23 mile fall is a long way down.
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Officials have given the all-clear for extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner to attempt the world’s first supersonic skydiver as he is moments away from a Spectacular 23-mile free fall over New Mexico this morning.
Before the launch, his team said the weather appeared favorable as his team began unpacking his 30-million cubic foot helium balloon that will host a 3,000-pound capsule carrying him 23 miles up into the sky.
He is hoping to become the first skydiver to break the sound barrier by jumping from a capsule floated more than 120,000 feet into the stratosphere by an ultra-thin, 55-story helium balloon.
Before sunrise the former Austrian paratrooper’s team began unpacking the 30 million cubic foot helium balloon to hoist the capsule that will carry him 23 miles up in the sky.
Mission control officials say the three hour ascent is expected to begin Sunday at 8am MDT The jump was postponed due to wind Monday, then aborted twice more for the same reason on Tuesday and Thursday. Meteorologists say conditions will finally be favorable for the jump Sunday morning.
The balloon is so delicate that it can take off only if winds on the ground are 2 mph or less.
Baumgartner is disappointed ‘like the rest of us’ but taking a couple of days of critical downtime, his high-performance athletic trainer, Andy Walshe, said Wednesday.
Team meteorologist Don Day noted during a media briefing at the Roswell launch site that weather delays are common in stratospheric ballooning.
‘It takes a lot of patience,’ said Joe Kittinger, a former Air Force captain whose free-fall record Baumgartner is trying to break.
Kittinger is a lead member of Baumgartner’s team, and will be the only member of mission control who will communicate directly with Baumgartner during his nearly three-hour ascent in a pressurized capsule.
‘I was ready to go and had to wait,’ Kittinger said at the briefing. ‘It’s frustrating. But you have to go through it. What you see is what you get.’
Kittinger reached 614 mph, or Mach 0.9. Baumgartner, a former military parachutist from Austria, hopes to reach 690 mph, or Mach 1.
Kittinger also was involved in the Air Force’s Excelsior project, making a series of parachute jumps from helium balloons in the stratosphere in 1959 and 1960. Excelsior was a test bed for the nation’s space program. With one balloon flight, ‘we waited 30 days and we never got it off,’ Kittinger said.
The energy drink maker Red Bull, which is sponsoring the feat, has been promoting a live Internet stream of the event from nearly 30 cameras on the capsule, the ground and a helicopter.
But organizers said there will be a 20-second delay in their broadcast of footage in case of a tragic accident.
After the jump, Baumgartner says he plans to settle down with his girlfriend and fly helicopters on mountain rescue and firefighting missions in the U.S. and Austria.
Baumgartner’s team had hoped to make the launch in the summer, when there is less wind, but was forced to delay it until October because of problems with the capsule.
One of the disappointments of Tuesday’s aborted launch was losing the balloon. The balloons are so fragile that once they are taken out of the box, they cannot be reused. The team has one more balloon. Team members said they are looking for a backup, but that could take four weeks or more.
Art Thompson, the project’s technical director, said there likely would be windows in the weather for making the jump through November, but declined to speculate on long-term plans beyond that.
The jump is being sponsored by energy drink maker Red Bull. The costs have not been disclosed.
But Thompson said Wednesday the balloons cost several hundred thousand dollars each, and he estimated the team lost $60,000 to $70,000 in helium
Weather conditions at the Roswell launch site caused Tuesday’s delay as Baumgartner’s three-hour ascent in a high-altitude balloon cannot start unless ground wind speeds are below two miles an hour.
The record-breaking attempt had been scheduled to begin at 11.30am but the launch was called off at 11.46am local time.
Meteorologists said Wednesday morning should have provide ideal weather conditions for the Austrian as he attempts to become the first human to break the sound barrier unaided by a vehicle.
The 43-year-old was in his capsule when the attempt was called off. He was informed by retired U.S. Air Force Col Joe Kittinger who was back at mission control of the Red Bull Stratos project.
The balloon launch to the edge of space at 120,000 feet had already been postponed once before because of high winds.
However, when the Austrian finally entered the capsule just before 11am MDT, the crews discovered that winds 700 feet above the ground, at the top of the balloon, were 20 mph, which was far above the safe limit of 3 mph.
After the flight was postponed for the second time in as many days, some openly wondered whether there was a deliberate attempt by the Red Bull Stratos team to build suspense.
Sources close to Red Bull have allegedly said that the jump was never intended to occur before tomorrow to ensure ‘maximum coverage’ and must take place before 6pm in Europe to hit newspaper deadline times on the continent.
During weekend practices, Baumgartner went over the technical details in the capsule before sitting solemnly in his trailer, wearing his specially designed $200,000 suit, to gather his thoughts.
Red Bull Stratos announced on Friday that the jump had been moved from Monday to Tuesday due to a cold front with gusty winds.
The jump can only be made if winds on the ground are under 2 mph for the initial launch.
Wearing only a pressurized suit and a parachute, Baumgartner will pause at the hatch of his tiny capsule as it ascends into the heavens beneath one of the biggest balloons ever made.
No more than 20 minutes later, the world will know whether this audacious Austrian has become the first skydiver to break the sound barrier in the highest, fastest free fall descent in history.
Coincidentally, Sunday also marks the 65th anniversary of U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager’s successful attempt to become the first man to officially break the sound barrier aboard an airplane.
Baumgartner plans to travel faster than the speed of sound with only the benefit of a high-tech suit.
Dr. Jonathan Clark, Baumgartner’s medical director, has told reporters he expects the pressurized spacesuit to protect him from the shock waves of breaking the sound barrier.
If all goes well and he survives the jump, NASA could certify a new generation of spacesuits for protecting astronauts and provide an escape option from spacecraft at 120,000 feet, he said.
Any contact with the capsule on his exit could tear the pressurized suit. A rip could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as 70 degrees below zero. It could cause potentially lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids, a condition known as “boiling blood.”
If anything goes wrong – and there is plenty that could – it might get very, very messy.
The nightmare scenario that Felix’s project director likens to a ‘horror film’ would involve his blood boiling, brain bursting and eyeballs popping out – all of it watched live via the internet around the globe.
This may sound like the sort of lunatic feat that no one but a man who has spent 20 years at the more extreme end of extreme sports would want anything to do with.
But a team of engineers, doctors and pilots have spent five years working alongside Baumgartner, 43, to ensure he gets down alive and in one piece.
For one of them, Dr Jonathan Clark, the operation’s medical director, there is an intensely personal reason for being involved.
Since his astronaut wife Laurel was killed in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, the former Nasa flight surgeon has devoted his career to working to improve astronauts’ chances of surviving a similar high-altitude disaster.
‘I have every expectation he’ll come through this successfully,’ says Dr Clark. ‘But, you know, it is still an unknown.’
As for Baumgartner, quite the Hollywood action man with his rugged good looks and Born To Fly tattooed on his arm, he and his backers are sufficiently confident that they are filming the descent and streaming it on YouTube.
Banishing talk of nerves, he says he would never jump if the odds were against him. And he insists he hasn’t got a death wish.
Of the skeptics who will be holding their hands in front of their eyes as he hurtles towards Earth at nearly 700mph, he says simply: ‘I think they underestimate the skills of a skydiver.’
Fearless Felix has been flinging himself out of planes and off skyscrapers for years.
He has clocked up 2,500 skydiving jumps, including one in which he became the first person to ‘fly’ across the English Channel, with carbon-fibre wings strapped to his back.
He has performed various horrifying ‘base jumps’, freefalling off the Christ statue in Rio and leaping head-first into a pitch black, 620ft-deep cave in Croatia.
Baumgartner says his supersonic plunge will be the end of his ‘journey’ as a daredevil.
He intends to retire with his girlfriend and settle down to a quiet life – which in his case means becoming a rescue helicopter pilot.
Ahead of his grand finale, he has completed a couple of high-altitude dress rehearsals. In July, he leapt from 96,640ft – just 6,000ft shy of a world record set in 1960 by Joe Kittinger, a U.S. air force test pilot.
The grandfather of stratosphere skydiving, 84-year-old Colonel Kittinger has become Baumgartner’s mentor and will be the voice he hears in his headset as he communicates with mission control before and during the jump.
But a disembodied voice will not protect him against some of the most extreme forces in nature.
‘You can feel in your stomach and every part of your body that it does not want to be there,’ says the Austrian, a former military parachutist, laconically.
The body in question will be encased in a specially designed $200,000 spacesuit. It has an insulating exterior that can withstand extreme temperatures, and an airtight inner layer filled with pressurized oxygen.
It also has one crucial difference to the spacesuits worn by astronauts, which is that it remains highly flexible when it is fully pressurized.
Baumgartner’s visor is fitted with an intensely powerful heat regulator that should keep his view free of fog and frost.
The suit’s 12lb chest pack contains monitoring and tracking equipment together with a voice transmitter so he can talk to mission control on the way down. The pack is connected to a device on his wrist that allows him to monitor his speed and altitude.
The capsule in which he’ll make his ascent is 11ft high and 8ft in diameter, made from fiberglass strengthened by an internal metal frame, and weighs as much as a Volkswagen Beetle.
It was designed by some of the scientists who created the U.S. stealth bomber and is based on the famous Nasa Apollo rocket, but with a few key design differences.
The exit hatch is bigger for a start, designed to prevent the sort of catastrophe that befell Soviet high-altitude sky diver Pyotr Dolgov in 1962. Struggling to leave his capsule in his cumbersome spacesuit, Dolgov cracked his visor slightly on the door.
He was dead by the time he landed, a victim of ebullism, the terrifying condition in which the drastically lower air pressure above 62,000ft makes liquids in the body start to bubble and vaporize, inflating the body and bringing unconsciousness within 15 seconds.
Unfortunately for Baumgartner’s sponsor, Red Bull, he won’t be able to consume any of the fizzy energy drink on the way up.
The air pressure inside the capsule will still be significantly lower than at sea level, and any kind of gas inside his body could prove extremely uncomfortable. The Austrian company won’t say how much it has sunk into the project, but it must surely run into millions.
Weather permitting (the balloon material is so flimsy the ground level wind cannot be stronger than 2mph), the launch will take place on a runway in the New Mexico desert.
A ten-strong team wearing cotton gloves and protective suits to prevent them ripping the fabric will pump helium from two large lorries into a $241,000 balloon that has been hailed as the biggest ever to lift a passenger.
When inflated, it is as high as a 55-story building with a volume of 30 million cubic feet.
Made from strengthened plastic, it is a tenth of the thickness of a sandwich bag. Baumgartner has limited space to move around in the capsule and the balloon will be largely steered remotely from mission control down on the ground.
If all goes well, the journey will take just under three hours. The biggest danger he faces on the way up is the risk of the balloon rupturing soon after take-off.
If that happens, Fearless Felix won’t have time to open the hatch and get out, and will come crashing down inside the capsule.
When it reaches the jumping height of 120,000ft three times the altitude at which airliners fly – he will look out on a black rather than blue daytime sky while he waits for the final ‘clear to jump’ message from mission control.
At that point, he will depressurize the capsule, pressurize his suit and open the exit door (the capsule will later automatically detach from the balloon and parachute back to Earth).
It’s a virtually oxygen-free vacuum up there, with just one per cent of the air pressure on Earth, so the consequences of an accident now – a ripped suit (the biggest fear) or hairline helmet crack – would be disastrous, bringing on the dreaded ebullism in seconds.
If that isn’t bad enough, a spacesuit failure could also bring on the bends (gas seeping into body tissues due to sudden low pressure), barotrauma (trapped gas in body cavities that can collapse the lungs), and severe oxygen deprivation, known as anoxia.
And let’s not forget the discomfort of falling through air with a temperature as low as minus 70f.
Even leaving the capsule is fraught with danger. Baumgartner, who will basically fall forwards off the capsule platform, needs to start plunging straight down, head first, as quickly as possible to reach maximum speed.
But there is always a risk that, with virtually no wind at those altitudes, he could end up in an uncontrolled flat spin.
And if he spins too fast, the force will make him lose consciousness, cause brain damage, turn his eyeballs into reddish-purple orbs and – very possibly – kill him.
As a safety precaution of sorts, his clever spacesuit will release a drogue parachute – a miniaturized version of the type used to slow fast-landing jets – to reduce his speed if its monitoring system senses he has lost consciousness.
It will take him just 40 seconds to go from zero to 700mph and break the sound barrier at an altitude of around 100,000ft.
No one can be sure what happens when a body breaks the sound barrier at that height, and the possibility of his suit being damaged by supersonic shock waves is another unpleasant ‘what if’ that Baumgartner’s scientific experts have had to consider.
But once he has gone supersonic, travelling at the speed of a bullet, the air resistance will start to pick up as the atmosphere becomes more dense and he can move himself into the more stable ‘delta’ position – arms and legs spread out, body parallel to the ground – that you normally see being used by skydivers.
Assuming he makes it through intact, Baumgartner, his spacesuit fitted with cameras recording his stomach-churning descent, will free-fall for some five-and-a-half minutes before pulling his main parachute at 5,000ft.
Some ten to 15 minutes later, with luck he will touch down near Roswell.
The remote New Mexican town is, of course, famous for a rumored UFO crash landing in 1947.
Where else can claim to have had stranger things drop out of the sky than Fearless Felix?
The official lift-off time for the balloon was 0931MDT (1631GMT; 1731BST). Mission control at Roswell airport is following every moment of what is likely to be a more than two-hour ascent to the jump altitude.
Baumgartner is in video and radio contact throughout. The only person who will speak to him, however, is Col Kittinger, who was brought into the team early to advise the Austrian how best to beat the octogenarian’s records.
“We are going to get your goal and your dream accomplished Felix,” Kittinger told Baumgartner just before lift-off. As the balloon began to move upward, the tension began to build. It is an almost unimaginable fall that will undoubtedly draw viewers from all over the world. 23 mile to go, and hopefully the tone on a calm Sunday morning will remain calm following a hopefully successful fall.