Oct. 8, 2012— -- "Born to Fly" reads the tattoo on 43-year-old Felix Baumgartner's arm. When he steps off the ledge of his capsule Tuesday morning, 120,000 feet above Earth, he will be flying faster than the speed of sound. His body will go from zero to 690 mph in 34 seconds, and he will be supersonic for almost a minute – free-falling for 5 minutes and 35 seconds.
"Born to Fly" isn't just his mantra. Baumgartner lives it as a skydiver who has flown across the English Channel and dreamed of even bigger feats. For five years, he has been training with a top-notch team from Red Bull on a project dubbed Stratos – Mission from the Edge of Space.
Baumgartner plans to ride in a capsule carried aloft by massive helium filled to 120,000 feet. Only one person has done this before - the legendary Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger in 1960.
The balloon carrying Baumgartner aloft is incredibly large and just as fragile. It can't launch with winds greater than 6 mph, so the team's meteorologist watches, and waits, for fair weather.
If this ambitious mission succeeds, Felix Baumgartner will break several records:
- First Human to break the speed of sound in in free-fall (Mach 1 more than 690 mph)
- Highest free-fall altitude -120,000 feet (Joe Kittinger hit 105,000 feet in 1960)
- Highest manned balloon flight at 120,000 feet (previous record was 113,740 feet in 1961)
- Longest free-fall (Baumgartner's team expects 5 minutes, 35 seconds; Kittinger's was 4 minutes, 36 seconds in 1960)
- Largest manned balloon in history at 550 feet tall, with a volume of 30 million cubic feet
Dr. Jonathan Clark is the chief medical officer for this effort. He is a former NASA flight surgeon currently with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and can recite the risks of this ride in his sleep. This, he says, is a very hostile environment. "We are using a helium balloon to get to the stratosphere, but to get there we have to transit the death zone."
It is dangerous. Every member of the team acknowledges the threats of extreme cold, extreme temperature fluctuations, the possibility of an uncontrolled flat spin that could hit 220 rpm, drogue chute failure, spacesuit puncture, life support systems failure.
But Baumgartner told ABC News he doesn't think of any of this when he is standing on the step of his capsule looking down at Earth. "You hear yourself breathing. You can see the curvature of Earth, the sky is totally black. It is a kind of overwhelming view because you have never seen a black sky, but then you can't stand there forever."
He can't stand there forever because his oxygen supply is limited, and as his team jokes, "There is only one way down."
Down starts with the first step out of the capsule on a ledge the size of a skateboard. Baumgartner will salute his team, count to three, then push off the step in a "bunny hop." This will stabilize him as his body goes through a dozen barrel rolls while he falls back down to Earth. This will keep him from going into a flat spin when he crashes through the sound barrier. He will be supersonic for almost a minute, traveling as fast as a jet.
After free-falling for five and a half minutes, Baumgartner will pull the rip cord to deploy his parachutes at 5,000 feet.
Waiting for him when he lands will be the man whose record he will have just broken, Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger. On Aug. 16, Kittinger jumped from a balloon at an altitude of 102,900 feet. He fell for almost five minutes before he opened 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 -- a record that has held for 52 years.
And what does Kittinger have to say to the man who's out to beat his record?