On Sunday, a few minutes after 20h00 South African time, 43-year-old Felix Baumgartner jumped from a height of 39 kilometres above the earth’s surface from a purpose-built space capsule. In doing so he became the record-holder of the highest freefall jumper and also became the first human to break the sound barrier. PAUL BERKOWITZ was watching the jump in real-time from his laptop.
The helium-powered balloon lifting Felix Baumgartner’s capsule took two and a half hours to make the ascent into the stratosphere, rising a few metres a second. It took Felix just under four and a half minutes of freefalling to cover most of that distance back to earth.
Watch the edited video of Baumgartner’s jump:
Baumgartner, a former military parachutist, BASE jumper and all-around daredevil, had been working for years to make this jump a reality. In 2005 he approached retired US Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger to discuss the possibility of breaking Kittinger’s own record for the highest freefall. In 1960, Kittinger jumped from a helium envelope at a height of 31.3 kilometres (128 100 feet) and went into freefall for four minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a top speed of 988 kilometres per hour.
Kittinger’s records for the highest freefall, farthest freefall and fastest freefall speed reached had stood for over 50 years. Now, at age 84, Kittinger was Baumgartner’s mentor and his radio contact on the ground. The entire project was sponsored by Red Bull, who created a special website for the event. For many people around the world, including South Africans, the live feed from the website was the only source of real-time coverage of the event.
For those of us watching at home, the coverage of the flight felt a little bit like the 1969 moon landing writ small. While Baumgartner’s capsule ascended slowly and quietly through the stratosphere, a commentator described the science behind the project and the potential dangers of extreme temperatures, changes in atmospheric pressure and an uncontrolled jump that could leave Baumgartner spinning through space like a leaf in a strong wind.
The time and the investment by Red Bull were on a smaller scale than the original NASA mission and its goals were more modest. There were still real risks of injury and even death: the original launch on October 8 had to be postponed when the weather became a risk. During the ascent Baumgartner had warned that his visor was fogging up, and a malfunctioning heating unit was suspected. He later admitted during a press conference that he had considered aborting the mission at this point.
As the balloon neared the apex of its ascent the scale of the attempt became clear. At around 26 kilometres up (some 85,000 feet) it became possible to see the earth’s curvature. At this point Baumgartner had long since passed through the troposphere and the coldest part of his journey (at the tropopause). The shape of the balloon itself changed as the atmospheric pressure dropped, going from a teardrop shape to a near-spherical one.
After a lengthy series of commands from Kittinger (over 20 steps needed to be taken before a safe exit from the capsule could be made), Baumgartner stood on the tiny step that would launch him into space. As he waited, literally on the ledge, he uttered the following words: “I know the whole world is watching right now and I wish the world could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.”
These words were a kind of bathos to the hubris of the late Neil Armstrong’s original “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ moon-landing speech. They seemed entirely appropriate for the matter-of-fact Baumgartner.
And then he jumped.
Very soon into his freefall Baumgartner almost aborted his mission a second time, as he explained at the post-jump press conference.
He went into an uncontrollable spin almost immediately and considered activating his parachute, which would have put paid to any record-breaking opportunities. Fortunately he managed to regain control. He reached a top freefall speed of 1,342 kilometres per hour, or 1.24 times the speed of sound.
After deploying his parachute a mere three kilometres or so above the ground Baumgartner drifted easily to earth, even managing to land on his feet. He immediately dropped to his knees and raised his fists triumphantly to the sky. He had smashed every record save for Kittinger’s record freefall time.
Baumgartner claims that he is ready to hang up his jumping boots, but the research into high altitude re-entry is sure to continue. Apart from the fantastic marketing opportunity for Red Bull (who haven’t confirmed how much the whole exercise has cost) there are valuable lessons to be learned for future space programmes and pilots. With the growth of private space flight there is sure to be money for further research. DM