15 Oct 2012

Austrian breaks sound barrier in space jump

8:22 pm on 15 October 2012

Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner has become the first man to break the sound barrier in a record-shattering freefall jump from the edge of space, organisers say.

The 43-year-old leapt from a capsule more than 38km above the Earth on Sunday, reaching a speed of 1136km/h before opening his red and white parachute and floating down to the New Mexico desert. The journey lasted 9 minutes and 3 seconds, including 4 minutes and 44 seconds after the parachute was deployed.

Mission control erupted in cheers as Baumgartner made a near-perfect jump from the capsule hoisted aloft by a giant helium-filled balloon to an altitude of 128,097 feet (39,044 metres), even higher than expected, AFP reports.

"I think 20 tons have fallen from my shoulders. I prepared for this for seven years," Baumgartner told German-language ServusTV in Austria, in his first interview after the leap.

Referring to a helmet problem that nearly forced him to abort at the last minute, he said: "Even on a day like this when you start so well, then there's a little glitch. And you think you'll have to abort - what if you've prepared everything and it fails on a visor problem.

"But I finally decided to jump. And it was the right decision."

Shortly before jumping, in footage beamed live around the world - on a crackly radio link he said: "Sometimes you have (to go) up really high to (realise) how small you are."

Baumgartner took more than two hours to get up to the jump altitude. He had already broken one record, before he even leapt: the previous highest altitude for a manned balloon flight was 113,740 feet (34,668 metres), set in 1961.

The Austrian had been due to jump from 120,000 feet, but the balloon went higher than expected, to more than 38km.

The Red Bull Stratos mission was the second attempt for the skydiver after an initial bid on Tuesday was aborted at the last minute due to winds.

The biggest risk Baumgartner faced was spinning out of control, which could have exerted g-force and made him lose consciousness. A controlled dive from the capsule was essential, putting him in a head-down position to increase speed.

More gruesomely, his blood could have boiled if there were the slightest tear or crack in his pressurised spacesuit-like outfit, due to instant depressurisation at the extreme altitude.

But the leap went off flawlessly, though there was a minor problem as the capsule ascended: a heater failed on Baumgartner's helmet faceplate, meaning it was becoming fogged up when he exhaled.

Baumgartner holds several previous records, notably with spectacular BASE jumps from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

He broke the record of the retired US Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger, (retired), who jumped from 31km in 1960. Since 1961, two people have died trying to achieve the feat.