October 21, 2012

Far Above: The Felix Baumgartner Skydive

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Most of us have a spirit of adventure. We may get our dose of adrenaline from skiing or scuba diving or from small excursions like exploring an unfamiliar part of town. But only Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner knows the endorphin rush that comes with jumping out of a helium balloon more than 128 thousand feet in the air while free-falling at a supersonic 834 miles per hour.

That’s the stunt that broke three world-records, exceeded the sound barrier by 68 mph, and left over eight million viewers awe-struck this past Sunday Oct 14. The space-dive, which was sponsored by Red Bull, became the highest and fastest jump in history as well as the highest manned balloon flight.  It was broadcast live on Youtube as the conclusion to the seven-year Red Bull Stratos project.

Before the jump, Baumgartner sat inside a small capsule attached to a 55-story tall helium balloon that slowly ascended into the stratosphere, where temperatures can reach as low as -70 °F. After two and a half hours, and a few brief egress procedures, Baumgartner took his plunge.  A minute into the supersonic free-fall, Baumgartner reached Mach 1.24, according to the world air sports federation’s, Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, confirmation.  The free-fall was 4-minutes and 22 seconds long, coming just fourteen seconds shy of beating the longest fall in history set by Joe Kittinger.

The scientists involved in the Red Bull Stratos project hope that their findings will lead to better space suit technology. This was the first time they got to see the effects of supersonic speeds on the human body outside of a vehicle, which faced possible risks such as blood boiling, injury from uncontrollable spinning and death from the sonic boom. They say that the project’s results may be useful for astronauts should they ever have to escape from their spacecraft in the case of an emergency

Despite the risks, many scientists thought the jump pushed the human boundaries in physics. Prof. Carl Franck, physics, found the jump to be exciting.

“I was impressed at the potential usefulness for high altitude escapes from spacecraft,” he said in an email. “The photo of him hopping out of the capsule was thrilling — there’s the earth’s curvature plain to see: Here’s this guy taking the big leap with no other way back I suppose. Ten minutes to return – that’s fast!”

Although not everyone was fascinated by the free fall.  Prof. Jim Alexander said in an email that he was surprised that anyone would be interested in the event at all, and called the stunt, which is estimated to have cost several millions of dollars, “a total waste of time and money.”

But for many the image of Baumgartner perched on the edge of the capsule with the world at his feet was a resounding sight An experience perhaps best phrased by Baumgartner himself:

“I know the whole world is watching now. I wish you could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to be up really high to understand how small you are,” he said. “I’m coming home now.”

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Original Author: Nicolas Ramos