My daughter sitting next to me held her breath and actually made a small low moan as Austrian pilot and balloonist Felix Baumgartner began his record-breaking jump at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere from a balloon. Watching it on live TV, it appeared he was at 128,095 feet when he saluted and leaped off the small porch of the capsule. She told me that was one of her fears, jumping off of something with that much space below and not knowing what would happen to her. It scared her watching Felix take that fall into space and the moan was her way of saying 'better Felix than me!'.
The ascent to over 128,000 took almost two and a half hours from the liftoff (at 11:31 AM EDT, 8:31 AM Pacific time) near Roswell, New Mexico and Felix simply had to sit tight in the small capsule until it slowed and then began a slight yo-yo as it rose and dipped between 128,100 and 126,500 feet, a little over 24 miles up. The Red Bull ground-support team and Joe Kittinger kept up a constant dialogue with Felix, relaying information and having him run through pre-jump checklists. At times Felix sounded a bit frustrated with the chatter and ground-support demands that he respond. Maybe it was just my perception but I thought he might want a few minutes of reflection and quiet time, since there was no way of knowing whether he would survive the jump. Many who had tried to beat Joe Kittinger’s record set in 1960 had died in the attempt. Felix was well aware of these.
Finally, after the capsule stabilized at around 128,000, problems with his visor’s heater resolved by ignoring it, and the checklist completed, Felix unlocked and rolled the door to the side, slid out on the minuscule step, grabbed the handholds and stood outside the capsule. Joe Kittinger made mention that Felix would now be watched over by a guardian angel, Felix saluted and fell forward off the platform. With so little resistance, within three seconds he was no longer visible from the capsule cameras. His speed rapidly built up and he rocketed past 700 miles an hour. The gauges shown on TV indicated he reached about 740 which should have put him at Mach 1, but it appears the speed may have only been around 700 to 705. (At this point at 3:15 PM, about two hours after Felix' jump, they are still waiting for confirmation from the Federation Aéronautique International.)
Baumgartner began to flip end over end in a tumbling motion but got that corrected quickly and fell in an arms and legs out, head down position for the remainder of the jump. As expected, his visor began to fog up but it made no difference at that point. 4 minutes 19 seconds into the free fall, his drogue chute opened and the main chute was deployed. Less than ten minutes after leaving the capsule, Felix Baumgartner was back on the ground, kneeling with his fists in the air, and his name now in the record books.
While many think the record-breaking jump was just a stunt, the scientific data mined will aid in developing new and better parachute systems, and potentially new ways of designing escape systems for astronaut/cosmonaut/taikonauts. Better space-faring suits, breathing apparatus' and stabilizing mechanisms will also result.
It was one giant jump for a man, and a significant leap for mankind.
(Update on 10-15-12: FAI says Baumgartner reached 833 miles per hours during his descent so he did surpass Mach 1.)