(Photo: Red Bull) Imagine riding a helium balloon to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, then jumping all the way to the ground. On Tuesday, October 9, Austrian extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner will attempt to do just this, breaking both the sound barrier and a world record as he speeds toward the earth.
Baumgartner has made over 2,500 skydiving jumps. He has also earned publicity for other daredevil feats, like using carbon-fiber wings to fly across the English Channel. But Baumgartner considers next week’s dive his crowning achievement, and he intends to retire from extreme sports afterward.
The current record holder for skydiving distance, Joseph Kittinger, dove nineteen miles in 1960, researching high-altitude bailouts for the United States military. Kittinger is a mentor to Baumgartner and will communicate with him from mission control.
To reach the mesosphere – a thin outer layer of the atmosphere where the morning sky will look black – Baumgartner will launch from Roswell, New Mexico, in a fiberglass-and-steel capsule attached to a super-thin polyethylene balloon. A team on the ground will pilot the balloon remotely. The balloon is about fifty-five stories high when fully inflated, and it is extremely delicate. Gusty winds are forecast for Monday, so Baumgartner had to postpone his dive until Tuesday to prevent the balloon from popping.
A rupture in the balloon is the greatest hazard: if it bursts during ascent, Baumgartner will not have time to open the escape hatch and bail out. There are other risks as well. Baumgartner’s suit, which is like a space suit but more flexible, could spring a leak. If that happens, he will suffer an instant, fatal case of the bends, as the change in pressure causes his blood vessels to burst. Even if his equipment works properly, Baumgartner could make a deadly error as he begins his dive. If he does not dive straight down, he will spin faster and faster, and the force could knock him unconscious.
Baumgartner’s team of engineers and doctors – led by aerospace expert Art Thompson, who co-designed the B-2 bomber – stresses that the risks of disaster are low. The project’s medical director, Jonathan Clark, told The Daily Mail, “I have every expectation he’ll come through this successfully.” Baumgartner agrees that the dive sounds much more dangerous than it is: “I think [some people] underestimate the skills of a skydiver.”
Seven years of development, millions of dollars, and several test runs have reassured Baumgartner’s team that the dive will probably be safe. His custom-designed suit is insulated and airtight to protect him from extreme cold, maintain air pressure, and supply him with oxygen. A pack on his chest will keep him in constant communication with Earth, and an embedded camera will take pictures.
The laws of gravity are also on Baumgartner’s side. As a skydiver’s speed increases, the air resistance around him also increases. Eventually, the diver is falling so fast that the force of the air resistance equals the force exerted by gravity. At this point, called terminal velocity, the diver stops accelerating and maintains a constant speed. According to physicist Michael Weissman, Baumgartner will reach terminal velocity in only thirty seconds: about 760 miles per hour, slightly higher than the speed of sound at sea level.
Baumgartner will continue to free fall at this speed for about five minutes. Then, when he is 5,000 feet from the ground, he will open his parachute and drift slowly back to Earth. On the way down, he’ll see the world as no one ever has before.