Felix Baumgartner To Make 17-Mile Freefall
July 25, 2012

Felix Baumgartner To Make 17-Mile Freefall

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Daredevil extraordinaire Felix Baumgartner has spent years planning a jump that would take him into the record books as the only man to ever freefall from the edge of space, but before he can accomplish that hair-raising feat he will first need to make a final test fall from 17 miles -- no small leap of faith in its own right.

The final test jump from 90,000 feet will occur over Roswell, New Mexico and, after two scheduled attempts were scrubbed due to inclement weather, a third attempt is scheduled for today. He last made a similar freefall in March when he jumped from 71,000 feet (13+ miles), and is working toward a supersonic jump from 120,000 feet in August.

The August jump could see him approaching speeds of nearly 700 mph, which would make him the only man to ever break the sound barrier without the aid of an aircraft. But for now, a 509-mph freefall will have to suffice.

Today´s freefall is meant to verify equipment and procedures prior to the record-setting attempt in August. The initial attempt, set for July 23, was scrubbed due to an unexpected thunderstorm, and was rescheduled to Tuesday, a spokesman for the Red Bull Stratos mission told FoxNews.com. That attempt was then pushed back again due to continuing weather issues.

As per US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, no manned balloon can launch if skies are half overcast or if horizontal visibility at any point is less than 3 miles.

But why do something that perhaps no other person on Earth in their right mind would do willingly?

“I love a challenge, and trying to become the first person to break the speed of sound in freefall is a challenge like no other,” said Baumgartner on the Red Bull Stratos site. “The effects of the transition to supersonic velocity and back again are not known.”

Before he can make the 90,000-foot freefall, Baumgartner must first ride in a custom-designed 3,000-pound, pressurized capsule carried by a 55-story tall balloon. He himself will also be wearing a full pressure space suit, otherwise the extreme pressure and freezing temperatures at such heights would be deadly. When he steps out of the capsule for the descent, he will approach top speed within the first minute of flight.

The Red Bull Stratos project has been in development for 7 years and Baumgartner has been in active training for the past 5 years, according to the spokesman. If all goes as planned, Baumgartner in August will have set the record for the highest manned balloon flight, highest successful jump, highest freefall, and longest freefall, he said.

The only other person to have so far jumped from such heights is US Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger, who in 1960 rode in a balloon to an altitude of 102,800 feet and reached a speed of 614 mph during his freefall. The fall lasted just over four and half minutes. Baumgartner´s August jump will last over 5 minutes.

But for this jump, Baumgartner is in intense training, rigorously exercising four to five days a week. He is also undergoing numerous simulations and mental preparations and doing grip exercises, which are meant to train him how to use his fingers and hands in the environment in which he will be in before the fall. The pressure of the suit plus the body-numbing temperatures at that altitude will give him a reduced sense of feeling. He is also adhering to a strict low fiber diet for 24 hours prior to the jump. This will reduce the amount of gas in his stomach as it expands at higher altitude and would cause discomfort. It's also to prevent any further problems should there be a breach in life support systems or the suit itself, said the spokesman.

“We have a great team assembled,” said Kittinger, a mission representative on the Red Bull Stratos team.

“But the balloon is extremely fragile and we must have absolutely calm winds. It takes patience to get just the right weather conditions.” Team meteorologist Don Day told Discovery News. “Ultimately, it came down to safety.”

Former NASA flight surgeon Dr. Jonathan Clark, who is now with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), is head of a team monitoring Baumgartner´s mission, ready to respond in an emergency. “We have run hours of tests in vacuum chambers, we are finessing life support systems, and monitoring his systems during the dive, calculating what he will need during the plunge back to Earth to survive,” he told ABC News.

It is a dangerous mission, and every member of the team knows and acknowledged the risks: the near-vacuum of space, extreme cold, temperature fluctuations, the danger of an uncontrolled flat spin, drogue chute failure, spacesuit puncture, life support systems failure, the list goes on, Clark added.

Clark admits it is a dangerous stunt, but it´s a scientific endeavor from Baumgartner. Clark´s wife Laurel was one of the seven astronauts that died when the Columbia space shuttle broke up over Texas in 2003. He said a spacesuit like the one Baumgartner uses may have saved her life.

“What the Red Bull Stratos does for me in some way is justify the loss of the of the Columbia crew,” said Clark, “because it has pushed us to say we will never give up, we will always try to bring an un-survivable situation into a survivable realm. So for me this is personally important. It could lead to better crew escape systems.”