Meet Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old Austrian daredevil who will attempt to set a world record with a 23-mile dive from the bleeding edge of space to Earth below. The supersonic freefall will see the expert skydiver, who first jumped out of a plane at age 16, push his body to extreme limits to become the first human to pierce the sound barrier without a plane. The historic jump is the centerpiece of the Red Bull Stratos event, seven years in the planning. Here's what you should know:
What's the plan, exactly?
In Roswell, N.M., Baumgartner will take off in special capsule attached to a 55-story helium balloon and ride more than 120,000 feet into the sky. Then he'll jump, speeding from zero to roughly 690 mph in 25 seconds, and thus breaking the sound barrier. "One mile every 5 seconds — this is how fast you travel at supersonic speed," Baumgarter tells Discovery. "We think it's possible, and I'm putting everything into making it happen."
How is he possibly going to slow down?
Baumgartner is expected to freefall for more than five and a half minutes before deploying his chute. But when the time comes, he has an advanced parachute system that includes a main chute, an emergency backup, a stabilizing drogue in case he begins spinning out of control, and an oxygen system. The whole setup weighs 60 pounds. "If all goes according to plan, Felix will deploy only his main chute," says the Stratos team.
What other gear will he have?
Baumgartner will be wearing a 28-pound, full-pressure spacesuit that severely restricts his movements. "Above 62,000 feet, without a pressure suit, Felix Baumgartner's body would begin to 'boil' from a lack of atmospheric pressure," says the Stratos team. The suit is fire retardant and insulated against extreme cold, as temperatures could fall as low as -70 degrees during his descent.
This sounds insanely dangerous. What are the risks?
Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA surgeon now heading up the jump's medical team, says he can tick off the mission's myriad dangers "in his sleep," says ABC News: "The near-vacuum of space, extreme cold, temperature fluctuations, the danger of an uncontrolled flat spin, drogue chute failure, spacesuit puncture, life support systems failure" — and the list goes on. "The pressure is huge, and we not only have to endure but excel," says Baumgartner. "We're excellently prepared, but it's never going to be a fun day. I'm risking my life, after all."
How is Baumgartner preparing?
Between four and five days a week, he has to undergo an intense physical training regimen, says Ryan Gorman at New York's Daily News. Some of his exercises focus entirely on gripping things while in his spacesuit, which numbs the senses. Prior to his jump, Baumgartner will eat a strict low-fiber diet to reduce the amount of gas in his stomach, which can expand at high altitudes and cause discomfort. On Wednesday, he completed the last of a series of test jumps — this final practice dive saw him jump from a balloon at 96,640 feet.
When will he jump from space?
An exact date hasn't been set yet. Weather will have to be absolutely pristine. Any wind could ruin the entire mission, as the balloon's material is thinner than a typical sandwich bag, and can tear easily.
And this jump would shatter records, right?
Yes. If successful, Baumgartner will hold multiple records. He'd be the first person to reach the speed of sound without a plane, and hold the records for highest altitude freefall, longest freefall time, and highest manned balloon flight in history.
What's the previous record?
The Austrian adventurer would be breaking a 52-year-old record held by Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger, who set the bar on Aug. 16, 1960 when he jumped from nearly 103,000 feet, falling for almost five full minutes before he opened his parachute. Kittinger, now 83, is advising Baumgartner on his mission.