Since 1960, nobody has beat USAF Col. Joe Kittinger’s record for jumping from 102,000 feet and landing safely with a parachute. Now Col. Kittinger is helping a Red Bull team to break that record, with skydiver Felix Baumgartner hoping to set four world records in a single jump. The team plans to send Baumgartner aloft in a spacesuit inside a pressurized capsule carried by a helium balloon. It will take about two and a half hours to reach at least 120,000 feet. Baumgartner then will jump, and he expects to reach speeds in excess of Mach 1 within about 30 seconds, making him the first person ever to break the speed of sound with his own body. The team plans to launch from a site in North America sometime this year, and will broadcast the attempt live over the Internet. “This is truly a step into the unknown,” Baumgartner said. “No one can accurately predict how the human body will react in the transition to supersonic speeds. But we’ve got to find out. Future aerospace programs need a way for pilots and astronauts to bail out at high altitude in case of emergency.”
Baumgartner, born in Austria, is best known for flying across the English Channel in freefall in 2003, using a custom-made carbon-fiber wing to stretch his glide. If the Stratos attempt is successful, he will set four new world records: altitude record for freefall, distance record for longest freefall, speed record for fastest freefall, and altitude record for the highest manned balloon flight. While it has been speculated that Col. Kittinger in fact exceeded the speed of sound on his descent in 1960, he wrote in National Geographic that his speed peaked at 614 mph, Mach 0.9 at his altitude. Col. Kittinger told Matt Lauer on the Today Show that he was glad to be helping out with the effort, though it could mean the end of his own longstanding record. “Records are meant to be broken,” he said. “It’s human nature to go faster, higher, deeper.” The data captured by the mission’s science team could promise new standards in aerospace safety and enhanced possibilities for human flight, according to Red Bull. Several previous efforts to break Kittinger’s record have failed. A 2008 attempt in Canada went awry when the balloon tore from its moorings prematurely and was lost. Click here to visit Red Bull’s video page for the project.