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The fall guy

On April 11, history will be rewritten as one man jumps from the edge of space, 37 km above earth’s surface.

health and fitness Updated: Mar 15, 2010 19:45 IST
Deepti Patwardhan

The man: Felix Baumgartner. The mission: To jump from 23 miles above the earth’s surface in the longest freefall ever, and come back alive.

Three years of preparation will come down to those five minutes of freefall when, on April 11, Austrian BASE jumper Baumgartner leaps from the edge of space on his journey homeward. During his descent he is almost certain to become the first man to break the speed of sound, hitting a top speed of about 1,110 kilometres per hour.

“I know I’ll be alone,” Baumgartner told HT in an email interview. “If I succeed, I will be the first person to break the sound barrier, alone. That will be a record for all eternity. As such, a piece of me will become immortal.”

The Austrian trained as a parachute jumper with the Austrian army, which eventually played a part in preparing him as a BASE jumper. “When I was too young to skydive I liked to climb trees, and I still thrive on that sensation. The air is where I am at home.”

The man, who has the words ‘born to fly’ tattooed on his arm, has jumped from heights such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (1,479 ft) and the 101 Tower in Taipei (1,670 ft). He’s soared across the Panama Canal in a freefall jump from a 393-ft-high bridge. And he has leapt from the highest building in Scandinavia, the Turning Torso (623 ft) in Sweden, jumping onto the roof of the building from a helicopter since security wouldn’t let him access it from the inside. In 2003, he flew across the English Channel with a carbon wing. But none of this was enough for ‘Fearless Felix’. To live up to the moniker fans have conferred upon him, Baum-gartner decided to leave the comfort of the skies and venture into the unknown.

Breaking an icon’s record

The bar was set in 1960, when US Air force Colonel, Joe Kittinger jumped from 19.5 miles above the earth’s surface. He still holds the record for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest and fastest freefall.

“I remember hearing stories about Kittinger’s incredible achievement. I have always had a dream and a desire to push myself in a similar way,” said Baumgartner. In 2007, he put the dream into action. Baumgartner and aerospace expert Art Thompson shared their vision with Red Bull to explore the stratosphere with a “space dive” and the idea of Red Bull Stratos was born.

And Kittinger himself is helping the Austrian achieve it.

Confronting the dangers

The 40-year-old will ascend into the stratosphere from an undisclosed location in North America in a pressure capsule suspended from the balloon, in about 2-3 hours. Dressed in a pressurised suit and helmet, Baumgartner will jump from 1,20,000 ft and is likely to touch ground in 13 minutes.

“The toughest part will be controlling my body throughout the various stages of the jump,” he explains. “For the first 25 to 30 seconds, the thin air will offer so little resistance that I’ll be unable to adjust my position using airflow. So I must choreograph my movements to step off the capsule in an optimal position that enables me to remain stable while creating minimal drag. My suit limits my movement and complicates matters.

“At around 1,00,000 ft above sea level, where I’m expected to reach Mach 1, the air has only one per cent (one one-hundredth) of the density we’re used to on ground. If my suit fails in any way, the low air pressure can cause my blood to “boil” with vapour bubbles, a condition called ebullism. This danger will be present until I descend to 63,000 ft.

“My suit and helmet are designed to provide oxygen, protection from the extreme cold, and the environment I’ll need to avert ebullism. The suit offers some amount of rigidity and support in the potentially difficult transonic range, as I approach the speed of sound.”

So how is Baumgartner preparing for his jump? “Besides working in wind tunnels and low-pressure chambers, I am jumping in my suit from successively higher outdoor altitudes. Although I may not need it, a special ‘drogue’ parachute has been developed for stabilisation at supersonic speed.”

The dangers are real. The drogue chute will be deployed if Baumgartner loses consciousness and goes into an uncontrolled spin due to the G forces exerted on his body. “Our biggest concern is that we don’t know how a human unencumbered by an aircraft will transition through this,” says Dr Jonathan Clark, the mission’s medical director.

During his 1960 jump, Kittinger’s pressurised glove failed on the ascent and his arm swelled to twice its size. But the American decided to go ahead with the mission. Many have attempted to overhaul Kittinger’s mark, none have succeeded; a few have even died.

“With any hazardous jump, the night before you think, ‘if something goes wrong, this is the last night I’ll ever see.’