An Austrian daredevil hopes to end a week-long delay on Sunday and skydive from a balloon flying 37km (23 miles) above the planet, breaking a 52-year-old altitude record – and the sound barrier in the process.
The 850,000-cubic-metre plastic balloon, which is about one-tenth the thickness of a Ziploc bag, can be launched only if winds are roughly 3km/h (2 mph) or less between ground level and an altitude of about 244 metres (800ft).
It became known that, because of weather conditions (high winds) launch attempts were delayed twice throughout past week. High winds, once damaging the balloon and forcing use of a backup for Sunday’s planned launch.
“Felix is ready to saddle up, and we’re ready to help him get there,” project advisor Joe Kittinger, who holds the current record for a high-altitude parachute jump.
At the same time Mr Baumgartner says: “I want to break the speed of sound, no matter what it takes,” he continues: “As long as we have a spare balloon and more launch days, I’m good.”
In 1960, a retired US air force colonel Mr Kittinger jumped from a balloon flying at 31,333 meters (102,800ft) and fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds before opening his parachute.
But Mr Baumgartner’s hopes are the following: to top with a jump from 36,576m (120,000ft) and freefall for 5 minutes and 35 seconds.
But it sounds like a dream because there is so little air in the upper reaches of the atmosphere that after about 30 seconds of freefall, Mr Baumgartner will be moving faster than the speed of sound, which is roughly 1,110 km/h (690 mph) at that altitude.
Baumgartner risks his life. It may become possible that his supersonic body will trigger shock waves that could collide with the force of an explosion. And if he falls in a way that puts him into a rapid spin, Mr Baumgartner could pass out and damage his eyes, brain and cardiovascular system.
Baumgartner’s medical team claim that this result is very likely. They think that the air in the stratosphere is too thin to convey sound waves. Moreover, Mr Baumgartner’s safety clothing includes a custom spacesuit to protect him from the low pressure and the extreme cold.
Mr Baumgartner would stay supersonic for about a minute before hitting a thicker part of the atmosphere, thus slowing his fall. It is planned that Mr Baumgartner’s ascent into the stratosphere should take 2.5 to three hours while the descent should last just 15 to 20 minute.
No human has broken the sound barrier during freefall, at least not intentionally. A vivid prove is that on January 25th, 1966, Bill Weaver, a US test pilot aboard an SR-71 Blackbird aircraft, was ejected from his damaged plane at Mach 3.18 – more than three times faster than the speed of sound – and he was able to survive.
“It goes to show there are still challenges to overcome and you should never lose sight of trying to achieve them,” Mr Baumgartner said in an interview posted on the project’s website.
Mr Baumgartner high-altitude parachute jump has another aim too. Mr Baumgartner and his team hope that the jump will help engineers working on spacesuits for Nasa and the budding commercial space tourism industry.
Energy drink manufacturer Red Bull, which is a sponsor of the skydive, plans to broadcast the whole jump live on its website.
The weekend weather in New Mexico appears to be cooperating this time for a daredevil trying to become the first skydiver to break the sound barrier.