Feb. 7, 2012 at 1:17 AM ET
After a long delay due to legal snags, skydiver Felix Baumgartner is once again gearing up for a supersonic plunge from a 120,000-foot-high balloon — a publicity stunt aimed at breaking a record that has stood for 52 years.
The Red Bull energy-drink company announced today that Baumgartner's Stratos mission was back in action, aiming to set a record for the longest, fastest, highest parachute jump.
Word of the renewed effort leaked out over the weekend in The Telegraph. That report claimed that the balloon would lift off from Roswell, N.M., in August — but a spokeswoman for the project, Trish Medalen, told me that it's too early to announce a date. The most she'd say is that the team plans to make an attempt sometime in the next year.
That's similar to what was said a little more than two years ago, when Red Bull made the initial announcement about Baumgartner's record try. The plan had to be put on hold in October 2010 due to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by event promoter Daniel Hogan. At the time, the company said Hogan claimed "to own certain rights to the project" and announced it would not proceed with the jump "until this case has been resolved."
Back in business
An out-of-court settlement was reached in the dispute last July. Neither party has discussed the terms of the settlement, but it opened the way for pre-jump preparations to resume. In December, KRQE-TV reported that the launch crew was conducting stratospheric balloon tests at the Roswell Industrial Air Center.
The flight plan calls for Baumgartner, a veteran 42-year-old skydiver from Austria, to rise to an altitude of 120,000 feet (36,576 meters) on a helium balloon equipped with a pressurized capsule. The ascent should take about three hours. Baumgartner will be wearing a pressure suit and astronaut-style helmet, and an oxygen-tank system will be built into his parachute pack. All this equipment is meant to keep him safe amid temperatures of 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-70 degrees Celsius).
Baumgartner would jump out of the capsule and go into free-fall for about five minutes, reaching speeds in excess of Mach 1 (which is about 690 mph or 1,110 kilometers per hour at that altitude). At a height of 5,000 feet (1.5 kilometers), Baumgartner would open his parachute, slowing down his descent for the final 10 minutes or so.
The team said it recently went through a successful mission simulation inside a vacuum chamber at Brooks City-Base in Texas. That three-hour rehearsal duplicated the temperatures and near-vacuum conditions Baumgartner would face during the ascent.
"The test in the chamber was a decisive moment for us," technical director Art Thompson said in a news release. "It's as close as you can get to the near space conditions without leaving Earth. We were able to verify our equipment, and now we're moving on to plan the first manned test flights."
Baumgartner is expected to make several practice jumps from lower altitudes, building up to the big event.
Break my record ... please
One of his advisers is the current parachute-jump record holder, retired Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger. During the Air Force's "Excelsior III" stratospheric test project in 1960, Kittinger took a free-fall from an altitude of 102,800 feet (31,333). He approached the speed of sound but never quite surpassed it, and ended up setting a record for highest, fastest and longest free-fall that has stood for more than a half-century.
That's not for lack of trying: Among those who have made the attempt, or at least said they would make an attempt, were Australia's Rodd Millner, America's Cheryl Stearns, Britain's Steve Truglia and France's Michel Fournier (who hasn't formally given up yet).
Kittinger said he has gotten plenty of phone calls over the years from folks who were thinking about breaking his record. "Most of 'em had no idea of the challenge," the 83-year-old said in a video. "I stayed away from it, constantly, until ... I was really very seriously interested when I was approached by Red Bull Stratos."
Kittinger has already experienced one of the potential killers associated with a high-altitude jump: going into a perilous spin during the descent. That happened during his Excelsior I jump in 1959 when a parachute wrapped around his neck, causing him to spiral uncontrollably and black out. Kittinger didn't regain consciousness until a second parachute was triggered to open automatically at 10,000 feet.
In addition to the current free-fall record-holder and one of the world's most seasoned skydivers, the multimillion-dollar project's team includes Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon whose astronaut-wife Laurel died in the 2003 Columbia tragedy. Although Baumgartner will not rise high enough to reach the 100-kilometer boundary of outer space, his mission could nevertheless blaze a trail for future spacefliers, Clark said in a statement.
"Never before has anyone gone supersonic without being in an aircraft," Clark said. "Red Bull Stratos is testing new equipment and developing the procedures for inhabiting such high altitudes as well as enduring such extreme acceleration. The aim is to improve the safety for space professionals as well as potential space tourists."
Baumgartner expressed a similar sentiment: "Maybe one day people will look back and say it was Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos team that helped to develop the suit that they're wearing in space. We want to do something for posterity."
Will Baumgartner's mission represent one giant leap for future space travelers, or is it really nothing more than a publicity stunt? What do you think? Feel free to register your vote in our Live Poll and leave your comments below.
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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.