A leap from the edge of space

posted at 12:10 pm on February 7, 2012 by Jazz Shaw

42 year old Felix Baumgartner is currently warming up for an attempt to step into the pages of history. (Note: this isn’t a particularly political story, but one that’s of great personal interest to me.) The Austrian daredevil plans to take a stab at one of the oldest standing records in what are now referred to as “extreme sports” by making a parachute jump from more than twenty miles up.

It will be one giant leap for man – and leave the rest of mankind dizzy at the thought. The world’s most daring skydiver is preparing to jump out of a balloon on the edge of space.

Felix Baumgartner, 42, hopes to break an altitude record which has lasted more than 50 years.

He plans to dive 120,000ft – nearly 23 miles – from the adapted weather balloon full of helium. It should take 35 seconds to break the sound barrier and ten minutes in all, reaching more than 690mph.

Baumgartner will not deploy his parachute until he is less than 5,000ft from the ground and he must rely on an astronaut suit and oxygen tanks to keep him alive.

This story has great personal interest to me, mostly because I was a sport skydiver when I was younger. Pretty much anyone who has engaged in that activity is familiar with the record Baumgartner is looking to break because it’s held by somebody most of us consider a hero, Capt. Joe Kittinger. You might think such a feat was accomplished recently in the era of Mountain Dew, Red Bull and crazy stunts. But Capt. Joe actually performed the feat on a clear December day all the way back in 1960.

The Air Force was studying the effects of extreme high altitude flights, (which would come in handy during the era of spy planes) including whether or not somebody could escape from a plane under such circumstances. They needed a hero and Kittinger was the man who stepped forward. He rode a much more primitive balloon up to more than 100,000 feet and he jumped, setting a bunch of records in one fell swoop which stand to this day. (Since that time, many people have attempted to break Joe’s records, all winding up looking very foolish, very dead, or both.)

Kittinger not only set the records for highest jump and longest freefall, but was the only person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle. His protective suit and other equipment were far inferior to what Baumgartner will use, and in later recounts of the story, he noted that his suit failed in a few ways, along with his oxygen system. In one interview he even mentioned feeling like he blacked out during the fall, waking up to find that he was still falling. So Baumgartner has his work cut out for him.

Kittinger had a hand held camera when he made the leap, along with another one mounted in the balloon. The video still exists and you can watch it in this clip from a documentary on gravity done some time ago for Discovery. Enjoy.

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