About 40 seconds into Felix Baumgartner’s 36.5-kilometre plunge to Earth, he will become the first human to smash through the speed of sound without the protection of a craft.
Nanjing Night Net

That is, if the 42-year-old Austrian BASE-jumper’s death-defying free-fall over the US south-west on Tuesday night, Sydney time, goes to plan.

Baumgartner will have ascended for nearly three hours below a gigantic, yet paper-thin, balloon to the edge of space. He will have passed through the tropopause, where aeroplanes cruise in minus 60 degrees, to the top tier of the stratosphere.

There, he might consult his maker before looking through the ozone haze to Earth’s curvature and stepping out in his high-pressure suit to the capsule’s ledge. Then he’ll jump, yielding to gravity over 15 multi-record-breaking minutes.

Seven years from conception, two years since initial testing and 52 years since Joe Kittinger leapt from 31,300 metres to help the US space program, the Stratos mission, orchestrated by Red Bull, is primed for lift-off.

The aim is to see what happens when a free-falling human exceeds supersonic velocity, which at 30,000 metres, plummeting virtually head first, is about 1,110km/h. It’s also to gather information to be used to develop commercial space flight.

“For anyone who has a love for adventure, a childhood passion for space, this is another step towards making space travel a reality for everybody,” Andy Walshe, Stratos’s Australian director of high performance, said from Roswell, New Mexico.

“We’ll investigate what happens to Felix under extreme conditions, what happens when he passes through the sound barrier, in the hope of passing on that knowledge to the next generation of people working on near-space flight.”

Specifically, Mr Walshe said, the project would provide information for emergency procedures.

“There’s a host of private programs working on space flight,” he said. “But before they take the public up there, they’ll have to know how to get them back if there are issues.”

It takes a rare character to take such a plunge. Mr Walshe described Baumgartner as “one of the most focused and meticulous athletes” he’s met.

“He leaves nothing to chance,” he said. “He wants to know about every part of the program, every piece of equipment, every bit of technology. He wants to be aware of the whole process.”

Which is not so surprising given that the slightest hitch could spell disaster.

Mr Walshe said safety would be the team’s primary concern.

However, amid the risky science, there will be emotion. The only person in Baumgartner’s ear as he makes the breathtaking ascent will be 83-year-old Kittinger, the project’s flight operations manager, whose leap in 1960 set records for the highest and longest free-fall and highest manned balloon flight, each of which Baumgartner aims to break.

“It’s a tribute to what Joe did back then that it’s taken 60 years to even get within a shot of his title,” Mr Walshe said.

“We’ll keep a close eye on Felix with all sorts of new sensors and technology that weren’t available in Joe’s day. If something untoward happens, we’ll have the opportunity to pull him out of there, unlike Joe, who didn’t even have a camera on him the whole way.

“The fact that Joe did that jump with those limited resources is staggering.”

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