Delivered from 39045 metres above the surface of the Earth, Felix Baumgartner’s final quote before descent could not have been more applicable. On October 14th, Felix was carried by a helium balloon 24 miles above the New Mexico desert, the first man to do so in over 50 years. As he exited the tiny capsule that had carried him, in nothing but a pressure suit and a parachute to slow him down, Baumgartner said:
"I know the whole world is watching now. I wish you could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to be up really high to understand how small you are… I'm coming home now."
Felix and his sponsor, Red Bull, first discussed the plans for the attempt in 2005. Over the next seven years, Red Bull recruited a plethora of talented engineers, including Aviation Hall of Fame member Joe Kittinger, the previous stratospheric free fall record holder. Kittinger held the record for highest free fall for 52 years, and lent his experience and talents to the team at Red Bull without hesitation.
Development continued relatively trouble free, bar a lawsuit that was settled out of court in June 2011, in which Daniel Hogan claimed Red Bull stole the idea of the jump from him in 2004. Development continued untroubled after the debacle. Baumgartner’s physical, psychological and technological training intensified in 2011 to ensure he truly was ready for the gargantuan task set before him. Though the purpose of the jump itself wasn’t to break world records, several would be broken in the process of the jump if Felix conducted his attempt with little error. These records were:
- The highest manned balloon flight.
- The first human to break the sound barrier without the assistance of a vehicle.
- The highest skydive.
- Longest time in free-fall.
However, shattering records wasn’t the intention of the jump, as clarified by Red Bull. The purpose was to further advance technological and scientific research for future pioneers in the field, including medical data. The pressure suit used was designed by the David Clark Company, who for the first time developed a suit for someone other than a governmental agency.
Finally, after years of training, design, development and testing, the time came to conduct the true jump. Following several successful test jumps, Baumgartner was ready. The launch was scheduled for October 9th. However, after years of preparation, the launch was excruciatingly delayed due to adverse weather conditions. The risk of being blown off course by strong winds was too severe to consider a launch.
The launch was originally delayed for two days, and then by a further three days. Eventually, on the morning of the October 14th, the balloon was successfully launched, and Baumgartner was on his way to becoming a world record holder.
The rest is history.
After a tense ascent that lasted around two and a half hours, the helium balloon and its capsule reached the target height of around 24 miles. A series of final checks were conducted, including depressurisation of the capsule. During the ascent, Baumgartner had expressed concern that his visor heater was not working properly, thus affecting his visibility. The jump was eventually given the go ahead, but not before an abortion of the jump was considered.
As eight million people watched live on YouTube, whilst further millions watched using other methods, Felix exited the capsule and stood on the brink. The Earth beckoned. After his memorable quote, Felix gave a final salute, and leapt from the edge.
After just 42 seconds of free fall, Felix reached his terminal velocity of 834 miles per hour. It was confirmed shortly after the jump that Baumgartner had become the first man in history to break the sound barrier without the assistance of an engine or vehicle.
After four minutes and twnty seconds of free fall, Felix pulled his parachute. By doing so, he failed to beat the record for longest free fall, held by Joe Kittinger, though in a post-jump conference he declared this was intentional, for he felt Kittinger deserved to at least maintain one of his records. Baumgartner had beaten the rest.
An interesting aspect of this jump was the lack of any governmental departments in its development and eventual execution. The project was funded by Red Bull, and as such creates an interesting prospect for further space travel.
Will the future of space travel see a degree of commercialisation, particularly if Virgin’s dream of space tourism comes to fruition? Will we see a Coca Cola sponsored flight to the Moon? Red Bull’s Stratos Jump could be seen as a bold and ultimately profitable step in raising their company’s profile, and one that many other companies may try to replicate in the future.
On their official website, Red Bull stated that the purpose of the jump was to ‘transcend human limits’, and contribute to the future of space travel by providing their findings to official space programs. Before the jump, it was unknown what effect travelling at supersonic speed without a vehicle would have on the human body.
Red Bull’s findings will undoubtedly be useful as time progresses. For that, they should be applauded. For a company famous for creating energy drinks, their venturing out into other areas is commendable. As for Felix Baumgartner, October 14th would have been the day his life changed. Known around the world for an exceptional feat of human bravery, he’ll probably never have to buy a drink at any bar in the world again.