A daredevil will soon attempt to break the world record for the highest skydive — set 50 years ago today — and be the first human to freefall faster than the speed of sound, and from near the edge of space.
On Aug. 16, 1960, U.S. Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger skydived from an altitude of 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) and lived to tell the tale. Attempts to break Kittinger's record since have resulted in failure and even death.
Undeterred, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner is slated to attempt a jump from some 120,000 feet (36,576 meters) above the surface of our planet later this year. To attain this stratospheric height, Baumgartner will take a three hour trip in a pressurized capsule raised aloft by a giant helium balloon.
Energy drink company and extreme activity promoter Red Bull is sponsoring the project, called Red Bull Stratos. The record-setting skydive should help inform escape plans for astronauts and space tourists alike by extending the "safety zone" where making a bailout is still in the cards.
Besides crossing the sound barrier – where forces can break apart aircraft – the journey will present a host of other hazards to Baumgartner.
For starters, he could freeze in the minus 140 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 95 degrees Celsius) temperature, develop nitrogen bubbles in his blood, and spin out of control and lose consciousness.
To withstand the frigid, thin air, Baumgartner will don a flexible airtight spacesuit like that worn by NASA and United States Air Force personnel.
After an intense six-minute plunge through the thickening atmosphere, Baumgartner is slated to deploy a parachute around a mile above the ground.
Though the goal is to have him land near his original launch site, he might drift as far as 200 miles (322 km) off target.
A pump-up from the legends
In early August, Baumgartner received a visit and encouraging words from explorers who are also no strangers to high-flying danger.
Baumgarter met with U.S.astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, as well as Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first person to spacewalk, and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, who has spent a great deal of time in space.
Armstrong, who was celebrating his 80th birthday, noted that all four men are known for their penchant of refusing to stay inside their vehicles.
"I find it interesting that we have four fliers here, all of which are better known for getting out of something than for flying it," Armstrong said in a statement. "We can't all stay inside flying machines."