Millions tuned in to watch extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner jump from a capsule 24 miles above Earth on Sunday. The Austrian-born Baumgartner succeeded in breaking the speed of sound as well as setting the record for the highest jump and fastest free-fall ever as a member of the Red Bull Stratos team.
Baumgartner was raised into New Mexico skies in an 11-by-8-foot fiberglass and acrylic pressurized capsule carried by a 55-story helium balloon made of fabric thinner than a Ziploc bag. At times the jellyfish-like balloon reached speeds of up to 120 mph.
During the ascent, the capsule, designed to maintain an even 55 degrees Fahrenheit in temperatures as low as -91.8 F (-67.8 C) kept Baumgartner warm, although a heater in his helmet faceplate wasn’t working properly, causing his visor to become fogged. Regardless, Baumgartner pressed on with the mission.
After going through an extensive checklist, Baumgartner released his seatbelt, disconnected his oxygen hoses and shuffled forward onto a tiny platform to get ready for the jump.
The scene was surreal as both Baumgartner and online viewers looked down on Earth, the only sound was Baumgartner’s breathing and his final words before stepping off the ledge: “I’m coming home.”
The jump was filmed by cameras on the ground as well as high-definition cameras attached to the capsule and Baumgartner’s pressure suit. The inflight cameras were especially equipped with filters to block out the sun’s rays and designed to withstand severe heat and cold. They were also able to operate at supersonic speeds and at any orientation (upside-down, sideways).
Baumgartner spent four minutes and 20 seconds in free-fall, reaching speeds of 833 mph before his parachute deployed. But after making a near-perfect exit from the capsule Baumgartner went into a sudden flat spin, which can cause a loss of consciousness if prolonged.
“There was a moment in time when I really thought I was in trouble,” Baumgartner said at a post-jump press conference. “I have a manual push button where I can release a drogue chute and it pulls me out of the spin, but I knew if I pushed this button the thing [breaking the supersonic record] is all over.”
Skydivers use body positions and visual cues to check their free-falls, but in an inflated pressure suit and helmet this becomes almost impossible. “The spin became so violent and it was hard to know how to get out of that spin because normally as a skydiver you get direct feedback from the air, but the suit is pressurized so it’s like swimming without touching the water.”
Eventually, Baumgartner was able to regain control and maneuver his body into the preferred head-down arrow-like “delta” position.
Pressure suit designer David Clark Company fitted Baumgartner’s suit with mirrors and added mobility to aid Baumgartner in his free-fall. The custom-made next-generation spacesuit is designed to provide protection from temperatures of +100°F to -90°F, and pressurized to prevent decompression sickness and ebullism— where the blood literally begins to boil. The pressure is maintained by a hockey- puck-sized controller inside the suit which automatically adjusts to different altitudes.
The suit has four layers – an inner layer to make it easier to get in and out of, a rubbery membrane with supersonically welded seams, a crocheted net, and finally an outer layer of fire-retardant, insulating material. The suit is the first to use Gore-Tex to wick away sweat, preventing the wearer from becoming cold.
Full-pressure spacesuits have never been qualified for the kind of controlled free-fall that Baumgartner achieved. Proof that a full-pressure suit can provide protection from such a bailout will be valuable for aerospace safety researchers.
The jump could prove especially useful to the space tourism industry according to Luke Aikins of Kapowsin Air Sports in Shelton, Washington, and skydiving consultant on the Red Bull team. Space tourism leaders are watching closely. They’re looking for answers about how people could get back to Earth if something goes wrong, Aikins told a local Washington radio station.
Baumgartner’s jump comes 65 years after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier at more than 30,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert. The previous skydiving record, which stood unbroken for 52 years, was set in 1960 by U.S. Air Force Capt. Joe Kittinger when he made a jump from 102,800 feet. Kittinger served as a team advisor on the Red Bull Stratos mission.