Felix's Grand Adventure: Mach 1 Falls
Red Bull didn't favor us with Felix Baumgartner's medical telemetry during yesterday's record Stratos skydive so I don't know what his heart rate was when he swung his boots over the door sill. Mine was about 140.
I had the unavoidable feeling that something wasn't quite right. His voice sounded slurred to me and he failed to respond to several of Joe Kittinger's challenge-response items on the checklist. Then I realized he may have been pressure breathing at that altitude, although I'm not sure if you pressure breathe in a pressure suit.
No matter. His incredible jump went off without a hitch. Well, almost. Just as some feared, he had a bout with either a tumble or spin—or maybe a short-coupled version of both—that took some seconds to skydive out of. But recover he did. From the ground camera footage, you can almost see the instant when he transitions through the wispy tendrils of the upper atmosphere into air thick enough to work with. The spin stops.
He did reach Mach 1 and then some—1.24, according to Red Bull. He also claims the record for the highest manned balloon flight, bettering Nick Piantanida's ill-fated Strato Jump project by some 5000 feet. At more than 110,000 feet of freefall, Baumgartner gets the record for the longest freefall in feet, if not in time. Kittinger, in drogue fall, may still own that record. Those records seem certain to stand for a long time as there is simply no compelling reason to break them and doing so will require vast sums of money. I haven't seen mention of Red Bull's budget on this project, but I'd guess it was at least $10 million.
I saw no mention of shock wave effects, either, but we might learn more about that later on. I'd also like to find out more about his body position during the initial acceleration. When he stepped off the porch, he went perfectly belly to earth, looking for all the world as Joe Kittinger had 52 years ago. The fact that Kittinger was a critical part of the effort on the 65th anniversary of Chuck Yeager's Mach 1 ride in the X-1 made for perfect bookends. Yeager himself, now 89, took a supersonic flight in an F-15 Sunday, 65 years to the minute after breaking the sound barrier in the X-1. The old lions still roar.
For all the interesting technical merit of the Stratos jump, what struck me most about it is how well it came off as a bright, shining perfectly executed bit of marketing promotion, which was, after all, the intent. Red Bull's live stream of the event was perfectly executed, even though Robert Hager kept mispronouncing Kittinger's name with a hard G. Fifty two years ago, Kittinger's Air Force team didn't know if he was alive until they found him in the desert. Now, we watch it live on the Web in almost real time.
Quite a good show it was, too. Such things has progress wrought.