Sunday, October 14, 2012

Felix Baumgartner's Historic Fall

Felix Baumgartner ready for his record jump

Earlier today Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner fell from the edge of space. Or more accurately, he jumped from a higher altitude than anyone ever has, setting records for the highest balloon ascent, highest skydive, and fastest descent (watch a few minutes of video here). The successful mission was the culmination of more than five years of effort by Baumgartner and his Red Bull-sponsored team. Baumgartner had initially planned to jump a few days ago, but poor weather delayed the attempt. However, today the morning in Roswell, New Mexico dawned clear and calm. By mid morning the sky was crystal blue and Baumgartner was ready. He boarded his gondola/capsule under the colossal silver bulge of the helium balloon that would carry him to the stratosphere. At about 11:30 AM EDT the balloon was released and Baumgartner left the ground.

Prior to Baumgartner, the highest skydive was made by American Air Force pilot Joseph Kittinger who successfully jumped from over 102,000 feet as part of Project Excelsior in 1960.1 Kittinger was brought on as a consultant for Baumgartner’s mission and was active today in walking the Austrian through his pre-jump checklist. It took Baumgartner more than two hours to ascend in his small capsule as his helium balloon expanded in the thinning air.2 Mission control released some helium from the balloon to stop it rising at about 128,000, or just a bit higher than 24 miles. Baumgartner and his equipment were under constant observation from ground-based cameras and a small mission control center that gave to whole undertaking the look of a miniature NASA operation. The balloon carried Baumgartner 26,000 feet higher than Kittenger’s 1960 jump altitude, and almost 15,000 feet higher than the previous manned balloon ascent record set by Navy Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather, Jr.,3 in 1961.

Balloon and capsule leaving Earth
The project tagline as a “mission to the edge of space” is a more  marketing slogan than reality as the actual height of 24 plus miles is less than half the altitude of true outer space, which is traditionally recognized as starting at 100 kilometers, or 62 miles above the Earth. Nevertheless, the air pressure at 128,000 feet is only about five one thousandths of that at sea level, which as far as humans are concerned is a virtual vacuum. Baumgartner’s capsule and suit were pressurized and oxygenated. The view from that height reveals the curvature of the Earth and a black sky overhead. The entire mission was broadcast live on the internet and when Baumgartner’s capsule door opened and he scooted into jump position it sure looked like space with the eastern New Mexico landscape appearing as a faded brown surface far below.

Baumgartner moved onto a step outside of the capsule and I imagine he must have experienced a jolt of vertigo as he looked down farther than anyone who isn’t an astronaut has ever looked down. With a simple salute he tipped forward off of his perch and into free fall. Jumping into such a diffused atmosphere, Baumgartner met virtually no air resistance, nothing to slow his fall. At more traditional skydiving altitudes, say 10,000 to 15,000 feet, air resistance prevents jumpers from exceeding a terminal velocity, typically about 120 miles per hour. At higher altitudes jumpers can reach much higher speeds. Kittinger set the record of 614 miles per hour during his 1960 jump. Baumgartner’s stated goals included breaking the previous speed record and breaking the speed of sound. Within a minute he had, reaching a maximum speed of 834 miles per hour.  The speed of sound varies based on air density and temperature, but it has been confirmed that Baumgartner’s maximum speed, reached at about 98,000 feet above sea level, was supersonic.4 A little more than three minutes later Baumgartner released his parachute ending his free fall,5 floating safely to the dry, scrubby ground.6

Felix Baumgartner - the "supersonic" man
So today Felix Baumgartner has taken mankind higher and faster than we’ve ever been outside of a plane or spacecraft. I don’t know how long it might be before someone goes higher or faster, maybe it will take another 52 years (i.e., it's been 52 years since Kittinger's jump), but it was pretty cool to see someone jump from the “edge of space” and reach speeds as fast as a fighter jet. Congratulations to Felix Baumgartner and his team on his historic fall.



1. I’ve written about this jump and other successful attempts by man to go higher and faster in this earlier post.

2. The balloon would expand to a maximum of some 30 million cubic feet. Imagine a spherical balloon with a diameter of almost 400 feet.

3. Prather tragically died after the successful ascent. The balloon landed in the Gulf of Mexico as planned, but during their recovery Prather lost his grip and slipped from the helicopter hoist. He was weighed down by his suit and drowned.

4. On video it was impossible to hear a sonic boom and in fact the air at 98,000 feet was probably too thin for there to have been much of one.

5. In total Baumgartner’s free fall lasted about 4 minutes and 22 seconds, which is actually twelve seconds less than Kittinger’s 1960 jump, so Kittinger still holds the record for the longest (by time) free fall.

6. The perception of floating down on a parachute is a bit misleading. A person descending under a parachute is still falling at about ten miles per hour, which can lead to painful or even injurious landings. I can attest to this as on my first and only skydive I landed in tandem with my instructor. His legs slipped and we fell hard on our butts. Fortunately, the pain was mitigated by the adrenaline coursing through my body still thrilled from the jump.

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