Feb. 9, 2012 — -- Felix Baumgartner will be defying death when he plunges from a balloon 120,000 feet above Earth. Jumping from that altitude, and surviving, means he be the first person to break the sound barrier without the protection of an aircraft.
The Austrian-born Baumgartner is famous for pushing the limits of human endurance -- he's jumped from the world's tallest building and parasailed over the English Channel -- but this event will be one for the books, if he succeeds. The project is called Stratos, and it is sponsored by Red Bull, the maker of high-caffeine energy drinks that is famous for helping athletes push their limits.
This daredevil dive from near space is not a first -- Baumgartner will be breaking a 52 year old record, and he is smart enough to recruit the man who set the record, the legendary Colonel Joe Kittinger. On August 16, 1960 Kittinger jumped from a balloon at an altitude of 102,900 feet. He fell for almost five minutes before opening a parachute to slow his decent at 18,000 feet. He made history for the highest balloon ascent, the highest parachute jump, and the fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere.
Does Kittinger fret about losing his record? "Not at all," he said. "Records are made to be broken and I want to see how Felix can push the envelope with this great team to break this record."
Kittinger isn't the only star on Stratos team of experts. Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon currently with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, is working with an experienced medical team to reduce the risks.
"We have run hours of tests in vacuum chambers, we are finessing life support systems, and monitoring his systems during the dive, calculating what he will need during the plunge back to Earth to survive," said Clark. "We are rehearsing this over and over, and will do tests from 60, 000 feet and 90,000 feet"
It is dangerous. Every member of the team acknowledges the risks. Clark says he can tick them off in his sleep: extreme cold, the near-vacuum of space, temperature fluctuations, the risk of an uncontrolled flat spin, drogue chute failure, spacesuit puncture, life support systems failure.
What may seem like a stunt to some is a personal mission for Clark. His wife Laurel was one of the seven astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia when it broke up over Texas in 2003. He said he believes that if she had been wearing a spacesuit like Baumgartner's, she might have survived the accident. This suit could be the next could be the next-generation spacesuit for NASA.
"What the Red Bull Stratos does for me in some way is justify the loss of the of the Columbia crew because it has pushed us to say we will never give up, we will always try to bring an unsurvivable situation into a survivable realm," he said. "So for me this is personally important. It could lead to better crew escape systems."
Stratos plans to launch from Roswell, New Mexico, in late summer or early fall. Weather is critical because the massive balloon is fragile and tears easily; it can't launch with winds in excess of 4 mph or under heavy cloud cover.
Baumgartner will ascend in a pressurized capsule, with a balloon that will be 700 feet tall when filled with helium. The preparations will start at midnight with an hour or so to oxygenate Baumgartner, to purge his system of nitrogen, which could form bubbles in his bloodstream.
The ascent to 120,000 feet will take a couple of hours. Once Baumgartner reaches altitude, he will depressurize the capsule, step out onto a ledge, and dive back down to Earth -- a plunge that could take seven minutes. He will have parachutes to slow him down when he hits 5,000 feet or terminal velocity.
Daredevil Felix Baumgartner Plans 23-Mile Space Dive
When Kittinger made his record jump in 1960 he did it as part of an Air Force research program. It is irony not lost on any team member that this time, a corporation is pushing the envelope on technology and human endurance.
Clark sees this as the future. "This used to be the realm of government entities, but now we are seeing private companies take on innovation -- who are willing to take a chance. Look at SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, who could open up space for more people.
"If this succeeds, I could see this kind of extreme sky diving become recreational," said Clark. "I would want to try it myself."
Joe Kittinger is now 83; he will be the Stratos Flight Director, the voice of this mission. He has repeatedly played back every step of his historic jump with Baumgartner, and isn't quite joking when he says he would trade places.
"I told him if he changes his mind, I am ready to take over for him."