The idea of a supersonic jump brings to mind a scene from last year’s blockbuster hit, Star Trek. Kirk, Sulu and an unfortunate red-shirted crew member jump out of Starship Enterprise to hurdle towards the Earth’s surface. Naturally, many assumed this was just a case of science fiction. But fiction may soon become a sort of reality. The New York Times reports that famed skydiver Felix Baumgartner will jump from a helium balloon in the stratosphere at least 120,000 feet above Earth.
Baumgartner, otherwise known as Fearless Felix, is a former paratrooper in the Austrian special forces who has already completed some of the most difficult jumps on earth. As the NY Times reports, he has skydived across the English Channel, jumped off the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro, and plunged 623 feet into a pitch black cave. Now he intends to become the first skydiver to break the sound barrier. His plan is to leap from a helium balloon in the stratosphere at least 120,000 feet up, gain a speed of up to 690 miles per hour in a 5.5-minute freefall, and open his parachute to land 23 miles below.
No one really knows what kind of shock wave Baumgartner’s body will experience when he exceeds the speed of sound. The NY Times reports that NASA says these findings could be key to helping future astronauts survive a loss of cabin pressure or an emergency bailout in the stratosphere. As a result, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the aerospace industry and private investors have been involved for three years, planning the jump. Reports are they have jointly built a balloon and pressurized capsule, as well as a customized astronaut’s suit.
One of the experts involved in the project is Joe Kittinger, a former Air Force pilot who famously survived a jump from a balloon at 102,800 feet above the New Mexico desert in 1960. Kittinger, now 81, is part of the Red Bull Stratos team supporting Baumgartner. (The energy drink giant is financing the jump.) As Kittinger told the NY Times, “I’ve gotten phone calls from all over the world, people wanting to break my record — one a month, sometimes two a month. But I stayed away from them because they didn’t have any idea what the challenge was. What attracted me to Red Bull was their methodological approach to safety and to providing scientific benefits.”
Kittinger hopes to help Baumgartner avoid some of the problems he had on his jump — namely, the fact that his body went into a spin that reached 120 revolutions per minute as he plummeted more than 60,000 feet. Kittinger blacked out and awoke only when his reserve parachute went off, saving his life. These immense risks are one reason this new jump is being privately financed. As the NY Times points out, Air Force and NASA officials have become “understandably reluctant” to explain potential mishaps to Congress.
But the Stratos team remains optimistic. Dr. Jonathan Clark is the lead medical advisor on the project. As he told the NY Times, “It’s going to be a major technical feat. It’s like early NASA — this heady feeling that we don’t know what we’re up against, but we’re going to do everything we can to overcome it.”
For further reading: A supersonic jump, from 23 miles in the air