News Column

Fearless Felix Sets Free-fall Record, Breaks Sound Barrier

Oct. 15, 2012

By Marco R. della Cava

Felix Baumgartner

Moments before stepping off a small metal platform high above Roswell, N.M., on Sunday and plunging to Earth from 24 miles in space, sky diver Felix Baumgartner offered a few static-filled words for posterity.

"Sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you are," the 43-year-old Austrian said. Then he jumped, a diminishing white dot against a black sky.

With his leap from 128,000 feet, Baumgartner becomes a larger-than-life figure in aerospace history, joining the ranks of those who also pushed personal and technological limits as they tempted fate and tested science.

He reached 833.9 mph, or mach 1.24, which is faster than the speed of sound. No one had ever reached that speed wearing only a high-tech suit.

He fell at supersonic speeds on the same date that in 1947 test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in an aircraft -- a person Baumgartner told USA TODAY after the jump he'd like to meet.

"Doing this on Oct. 14 was pure luck," said Baumgartner, who had almost jumped last week before wind gusts scrubbed the launch. "But it was a great honor to break the sound barrier outside of a plane on this day."

Adding to his inevitable fame is the fact that the feat was streamed live around the world using more than 30 high-definition cameras on the ground, and in and outside of his capsule. A two-hour BBC documentary will hit TV soon, and there surely will be the inevitable chats with talk show hosts and calls from admirers.

So far, none of that seems to be getting to Baumgartner's buzz-cut head.

"Standing up there, you're so humble," he said at a post-jump news conference. "You're not thinking about breaking scientific records. All you're thinking about is you want to come back alive. You just don't want to die in front of your parents and girlfriend."

Baumgartner's jump was possible partly due to an expensive operation packed with top scientists, but also to the pioneering work of adventurers past, said Margaret Weitekamp, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum focusing on popular culture and spaceflight.

"In many ways, Felix was standing on the shoulders of giants," she said. "Baumgartner himself will be advancing the science of how the human body responds to the upper atmosphere, just as many test pilots did before him."

Leaping into the unknown

The event appeared to be an irresistible blend of space derring-do and extreme sports insanity, particularly at the moment Baumgartner could be seen standing on the edge of space.

"I was actually scared at that point," said Clara Moskowitz, assistant editor at "This was a human being literally stepping into the unknown. It doesn't get more intense than that."

Baumgartner, known as "Fearless Felix," beat the record set by retired U.S. Air Force colonel Joe Kittinger, who in 1960 plunged out of an open basket from 102,800 feet. Kittinger served as a mentor to Baumgartner throughout the five-year project.

The mission, dubbed Red Bull Stratos after the energy drink company that sponsored the jump, also set records for highest manned balloon flight (113,740 feet in 1961) and fastest free fall (Kittinger at 614 mph).

Baumgartner's jump wasn't without drama. He complained about a lack of heat in his helmet on the way up, which caused mission engineers to debate whether to bring him down in the capsule attached to the massive helium balloon.

On the descent, he could be seen by an infrared camera as a tiny white dot against a black backdrop spinning wildly, precisely what the team was hoping to avoid as it could lead to a loss of consciousness or worse.

Baumgartner got that spin under control, and minutes later landed gracefully on his feet in the New Mexico desert. The sky diver immediately fell to his knees. Cameras trained on his family -- who had never been to the United States before -- showed his parents, brother and his girlfriend cheering.

"I never felt like I was going to die, but I did think that if I don't get myself out of this (spin) I won't break the speed of sound," he told USA TODAY. "That would have been a big disappointment because I just don't have any energy left to do this again."

After a press tour, Baumgartner swears people won't hear much from him. "I'm retired from the daredevil business," he said. "I want to find a nice decent job as a helicopter pilot. I'll fight fires and rescue people. No e-mails, no phone calls."

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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