Fearless Felix lands safely back on Earth after giant leap from the edge of space


The ‘supersonic’ skydiver has broken two world records, writes DOMINIC RUSHEin New York

STANDING AT the edge of space above the deserts of New Mexico, Felix Baumgartner paused slightly. It was a small step away from his capsule, but a 39km (24-mile) drop back down to Earth.

“Our guardian angel will take care of you,” said mission control, and the man known as Fearless Felix jumped.

Ten heart-stopping minutes later the Austrian landed back on Earth, after reaching speeds of up to 1,166km/h (725mph), breaking two world records and probably becoming the world’s first supersonic skydiver.

“We love you Felix,” cheered the control room as his mother, Ava, wept.

Baumgartner, who claimed the records for the highest-altitude manned balloon flight and the highest-altitude skydive, raised his arms in a victory salute to thank his team. “Looks like he probably broke Mach,” said project commentator Bob Hager, referring to Mach 1, used to measure the speed of sound.

Baumgartner was wearing a specially designed survival suit that kept his body intact against the hugely varying pressures during his drop back to Earth. Without it, his blood would have boiled and his lungs might have exploded.

After two aborted attempts last week, the mission was given the go-ahead yesterday morning with the co-operation of the weather.

Baumgartner was carried up into crystal-clear skies by a gigantic balloon measuring 850,000 cubic metres with skin one-tenth the thickness of a sandwich bag. At the bottom of the balloon hung a capsule, in which Baumgartner sat in his suit.

As he reached the desired height, Baumgartner went through a checklist of 40 items with his mentor, Joe Kittinger, the previous holder of the highest- altitude manned balloon flight.

There was some concern that a heater for his visor was not working, causing it to fog. “This is very serious, Joe,” he told Kittinger. “Sometimes it’s getting foggy when I exhale . . . I do not feel heat.”

But they decided to go ahead, watched by a record eight million people as the jump was streamed live on YouTube.

The 2½-hour journey upwards, during which the curvature of the Earth became visible and the skies gradually turned black, was matched with a rather more rapid descent. Three cameras attached to Baumgartner’s suit recorded the staggering descent, his parachute opening after a freefall of just over four minutes – failing to break the existing freefall record for duration.

The success of the mission raises the prospect that astronauts might be able to survive a high-altitude disaster of the type that struck the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 by actually bailing out of their craft. Baumgartner’s top medical man in the stunt was Dr Jonathan Clark, whose wife, Laurel, died in the Columbia incident. Clark is now dedicated to improving astronauts’ chances of survival in a high-altitude disaster.

Baumgartner has made a name for himself with acts of daring. The former paratrooper has parachuted off buildings and mountains and once into a 182m-deep cave.

He had already done two practice freefalls in preparation for this attempt – one from about 5,000m in March this year and a second from 29,565m in July.

But no feat can possibly have matched his jump above the town of Roswell, famed for its connections to UFO sightings.

He was chasing five records: the first human to break the sound barrier in freefall; the highest freefall altitude jump; the highest manned balloon flight; the longest freefall; and the largest manned balloon in history.

The stunt, which was seven years in the planning and sponsored by Red Bull drinks, surpassed Kittinger’s achievement: the retired US air force colonel previously held the high-altitude and speed records for parachuting. Suitably, the only voice in Baumgartner’s radio earpiece guiding his ascent was Kittinger’s, now 84.

Baumgartner’s achievement was all the more remarkable given that he had to overcome claustrophobia. During preparations for the stunt, he noticed that spending hours inside the stiff, heavy suit induced feelings of terror and paranoia.

He was only able to overcome the feelings with help from experts, who devised a mental checklist to keep his mind busy on the ascent: he went through these with the help of Kittinger’s instructions over the radio.

But this will be the last jump, Baumgartner says. He has promised to settle down and enjoy his post-jump years with his girlfriend, Nicole Oetl, flying helicopters on rescue missions in the US and Austria. – (Guardian service)