Skydiver Plans Supersonic Jump from Edge of Space

NEW YORK - Askydiver leaping from the edge of space could smash the nearly 50-year-oldrecord for highest jump ever later this year, and set a new one as the firstperson to go supersonic in freefall.

More thanjust a stunt, the team sponsored by energy drink company Red Bull noted theirfindings could help lead to escape plans during spaceflights.

Austrianskydiver Felix Baumgartner, who became the first person to cross the EnglishChannel in freefall in 2003, will make the attempt using a nearly 2,500-pound (11,339-kg)pressurized capsule hoisted up to the edge ofspace by a single helium-filled plastic balloon some 600 feet (182 meters) wide.?After a roughly three-hour-long flight to roughly 120,000 feet (36,576 meters)? more than four times the height of Mt. Everest ? Baumgartner will rotate thecapsule's four-foot-wide door off to one side, grab the hand rails on eitherside of the exit, and leap off.

With theleap, Baumgartner could potentially break the records for highestparachute jump, as well as longest and fastest freefall. His team expectshim to reach supersonic speeds 35 seconds after he leaps, given how little airwill hold him back in such near-vacuum conditions.

The currentworld record for highest jump was set on August 16, 1960, when U.S. Air ForceCaptain Joe Kittinger jumped from a balloon at an altitude of some 102,800 feet(31,333 meters).

"Hellno, I didn't hesitate," Kittinger recalled of his jump. "When it cametime to jump, I was happy as hell to go, to go back to where it's friendly andfun. Earth is friendly and fun, and it's not friendly and fun at 20 miles up."

Baumgartner?steam plans make its jump attempt in 2010, but a final target date will bedetermined after a series of final tests are performed.

Riskyrecord jump

Many haveattempted to surpass Kittinger's achievement, but all failed, with New Jerseynative Nick Piantanida dying in his 1966 try. Now Kittinger will help adviseBaumgartner on his jump.

"Thespirit of man has always tried to go higher, deeper, faster," Kittingersaid.

Baumgartnerwill face extreme danger. For instance, the forces he will face nearing thespeed of sound "we know with aircraft can break them apart," saidproject medical director Jonathan Clark. "We've never had a person breakthe sound barrier without the aid of a vehicle before, so we're dealing with someunknowns here." Still, he pointed out one known instance of a pilotsurviving the destruction of a plane at three times the speed of sound, sosurvival is definitely possible.

Theextremely thin air is also a threat. At 120,000 feet, the atmospheric pressureis so low ? just 0.2 percent that at sea level ? blood will boil. Above theso-called 'Armstrong line' of 63,000 feet (19,200 meters), Thompson explainedthat if Baumgartner opened up his suit or helmet, gases start escaping from thebody. "It sounds melodramatic, but you start bleeding from youreyes," explained project technical director, Art Thompson.

To survive,Baumgartner will employ a modified version of airtight, fully pressurizedspacesuits currently employed by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, with more flexiblejoints. This will let him bend to achieve the standard, belly-down skydivingposition needed to slow down.

Thesuper-low pressure Baumgartner faces can also lead to decompression sickness,known to underwater divers as the bends, which involves nitrogen bubblesforming in the body. To prevent this risk, he will breathe only pure oxygenduring the flight as well as two hours beforehand to flush nitrogen out of hisbody. However, pure oxygen is naturally highly flammable, which meanselectronics on the suit have to be designed to minimize any risk of sparkingwhatsoever, with sensors working on millionths of volts instead of thousandths,for instance.

Anotherhurdle Baumgartner faces is uncontrolled spin, which could render himunconscious. If need be, he can deploy a five-foot-wide drogue parachute thatwould stabilize his flight. Sensors on the suit will constantly monitor hisacceleration for warning signs of spinning, as well as checking on his heartrate and position, transmitting data to the ground team via a radio in a packmounted on his chest.

Cold,long flight

Inside thecapsule, Baumgartner will be exposed to as much as minus 140 degrees Fahrenheit(minus 95 degrees Celsius), so he will have heated foot-warmers and hand-muffsto keep his extremities warm, and his face shield can heat to keep it fromfogging up. However, the researchers aren't just concerned with keeping himwarm, but also in making sure he doesn't get too hot and sweaty.

"Wehave to be careful how we draw off the moisture, since we don't want it to turninto ice," Thompson said. "You could freeze yourself in thesuit." Dehydration is also a major concern, as they want to preventdisorientation ? "not knowing when to pull the chute is a bad thing,"he added ? as well as potentially catastrophic vomiting.

Afterfreefalling for roughly six minutes, decelerating to some 120 mph (193 kph)just from air resistance, Baumgartner should open his parachute at roughly5,000 feet (1,524 meters). After he lands, the ground team can remotely cut thecapsule loose from the balloon and have it drift down on a triple cluster ofparachutes, and a crush pad of corrugated fiberglass epoxy laminate on itsbottom will cushion its fall.

Testjumps on tap

Twopreparatory flights will be conducted at 65,000 and 90,000 feet (19,812 to 27,432meters) to catch any problems that might arise. Currently Baumgartner isundergoing rigorous tests in the suit in vertical wind tunnels to simulatefalling, as well as in extreme cold and in vacuum chambers. In the two or threedays before launch, he will go on a "low-residue" diet to reduce anyrisk of problems should he need to relieve himself during flight.

Red Bullwould not reveal how much they spent on the project, and while it said theproject would launch this year from North America, it has not specified a dateor launch site yet. This uncertainty depends partly on finding the idealweather conditions for the flight. "We want a still, calmenvironment," Thompson explained. Although they hope Baumgartner landsnear his launch site, "he could drift maybe 150 to 200 miles off," headded.

By provingthat people can survive a jump from that speed and altitude, the project hopesto show that astronauts might achieve the same if they ever need to escape froma spacecraft.

"Thelessons we hope to learn from this suit could help eventually be used forfuture applications in the Orionprogram," the successor to NASA's space shuttle, Thompson said.

"Ididn't do it to set a record," Kittinger said of his jump. "I went togather useful scientific data. Felix will do the same. And he'll do a greatjob."

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Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at