For more than four nerve- racking minutes, he was a tiny white speck against a dark sky, hurtling from 24 miles above the Earth at up to 729mph.
Then his parachute opened and five minutes later, to the relief of the millions watching, ‘Fearless Felix’ Baumgartner was back on solid ground – having made the highest and fastest skydive in history .
In the process, the 43-year-old Austrian became the first freefall diver to break the sound barrier, and also broke the record for the highest-ever manned balloon ascent.
He made his death-defying jump from a tiny capsule that took him up to the edge of space after days of delays due to bad weather.
The helium inside the capsule’s vast silver parachute had expanded to fill nearly 30million cubic feet by the time Baumgartner opened the hatch, more than 127,000ft above the New Mexico desert.
Less than ten minutes later the professional daredevil reached the ground, landing on his feet despite moments during the descent that had silenced his mission control as he appeared to lose control and plunge into a head-over-heels spin.
Falling to his knees, he punched the air in triumph as his mission control room, packed with scientific experts and family including his teary-eyed mother, Eva, erupted into roars of applause.
The extreme sportsman has skydived or base-jumped off statues and skyscrapers around the world, but yesterday’s feat was easily the biggest challenge of his career.
Nobody could be quite sure about the physical effects of breaking the sound barrier in freefall, and if Baumgartner’s pressurised spacesuit and helmet had been damaged it could have been catastrophic.
The multi-million pound attempt, sponsored by the energy drink maker Red Bull, had begun before dawn as a support team unwrapped the huge parachute on a landing strip that had been hand-cleared of anything that might damage its thin fabric.
As Baumgartner dropped, his lead team member Joe Kittinger told him: ‘Our guardian angel will take care of you.’
Kittinger first attempted to break the sound barrier from 19.5 miles up in 1960, reaching speed of 614 mph. He was the only member of mission control who could communicate directly with Baumgartner during the nearly three-hour ascent in a pressurized capsule.
Kittinger said his 1960 jump, the first attempt to break the sound barrier, also was delayed by weather. He leapt from a helium balloon-floated, open-air gondola from an altitude of 19.5 miles.
‘I was ready to go and had to wait,’ Kittinger said at the briefing. ‘It’s frustrating. But you have to go through it. What you see is what you get.’
Kittinger reached 614 mph, or Mach 0.9. Baumgartner, a former military parachutist from Austria, hopes to reach 690 mph, or Mach 1 – faster than the speed of sound.
The ascent took around two-and-a-half hours, faster than expected. But there were fears the mission would once again be cancelled, after he reported that the heating device in his visor was not working properly, causing it to mist up.
He and his mentor, Joe Kittinger, back in mission control, discussed whether to terminate the attempt. Kittinger, an 84-year-old US Air Force colonel who set the previous freefall record in 1960 when he jumped from 102,800 feet, had agreed to come out of retirement to help Baumgartner set a new record.
But they decided to go ahead, and as the balloon stopped rising, Baumgartner began conducting his final exit checks. In his bulky, specially made suit, the skydiver had little room to maneouvre inside the capsule and had to slide feet first through the hatch.
Gripping the hand rails on either side of the hatch exterior, he hauled himself up on to an outside platform little bigger than a skateboard. After a final salute, he fell forwards in what his team describes as ‘bunny hop’ – pushing out with both feet at the same time to avoid falling into a potentially fatal flatspin.
As hoped, he was soon plunging down headfirst through the air. His 70-strong team of engineers, doctors and scientists, which spent five years planning the attempt, had estimated he would fall at around 700mph in the first 50 seconds.
But he managed to plunge even faster, reaching 729mph during the first 50 seconds of the four minute, 22 second freefall. He communicated with Col Kittinger via a radio built into his suit but he sounded largely unintelligible until he could be heard complaining once more about his visor fogging up. But by then he was already falling into warmer altitudes and by the time he had opened his parachute, he had long since regained control.
His success left Col Kittinger with only one record – for the longest time spent in a freefall. But he was clearly as relieved as anyone to see the others broken at last.
‘Couldn’t have done it better myself,’ he joked as Baumgartner glided to the ground.
Baumgartner stepped out of a capsule pulled by a 55-story helium balloon after it had reached the height of 127,718 feet. As he softly landed on Earth with the help of a parachute about five minutes later, Baumgartner raised his hands in victory.
‘Sometimes we have to get really high to see how small we are,’ an exuberant Baumgartner told reporters outside mission control, shortly after the jump. He was expected to offer more remarks at an afternoon news conference.
Baumgartner was expected to hit a speed of 690 mph before activating his parachute about 5,000 above the ground in southeastern New Mexico. A member of his team told CNN that he achieved a speed of 833 mph, or mach 1.24 – breaking the speed of sound.
Before sunrise the former Austrian paratrooper’s crew began unpacking the 30 million cubic foot helium balloon to hoist the capsule that will carry him 23 miles up in the sky.
The three-hour ascent began on Sunday at about 9.30am MDT. The jump was postponed due to wind on Monday, then aborted twice more for the same reason on Tuesday and Thursday. Meteorologists say conditions will finally be favorable for the jump Sunday morning.
Any contact with the capsule on his exit could have torn his pressurized suit, a rip that could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as minus-70 degrees. That could have caused lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids.
But none of that happened. He activated his parachute as he neared Earth, gently gliding into the desert east of Roswell and landing without any apparent difficulty.
The images triggered another loud cheer from onlookers at mission control, among them his mother, Eva Baumgartner, who was overcome with emotion, crying.
He then was taken by helicopter to meet fellow members of his team, whom he hugged in celebration.
The balloon is so delicate that it can take off only if winds on the ground are 2 mph or less. Checking through an equipment list from his seat in the pressurized capsule, Baumgartner, 43, expressed concern that his astronaut-like helmet was not heating properly.
‘This is very serious, Joe,’ said Baumgartner as the capsule, designed to remain at 55 degrees Fahrenheit ascended in skies where temperatures were expected to plunge below -91.8 F (-67.8 C), according to the project’s website. ‘Sometimes it’s getting foggy when I exhale. … I do not feel heat.’
Baumgartner was disappointed ‘like the rest of us’ but taking a couple of days of critical downtime, his high-performance athletic trainer, Andy Walshe, said on Wednesday.
Team meteorologist Don Day noted during a media briefing at the Roswell launch site that weather delays are common in stratospheric ballooning.
Kittinger also was involved in the Air Force’s Excelsior project, making a series of parachute jumps from helium balloons in the stratosphere in 1959 and 1960. Excelsior was a test bed for the nation’s space program. With one balloon flight, ‘we waited 30 days and we never got it off,’ Kittinger said.
The energy drink maker Red Bull, which is sponsoring the feat, has been promoting a live Internet stream of the event from nearly 30 cameras on the capsule, the ground and a helicopter.
But organizers said there will be a 20-second delay in their broadcast of footage in case of a tragic accident.
After the jump, Baumgartner says he plans to settle down with his girlfriend and fly helicopters on mountain rescue and firefighting missions in the U.S. and Austria.
Baumgartner’s team had hoped to make the launch in the summer, when there is less wind, but was forced to delay it until October because of problems with the capsule.
One of the disappointments of Tuesday’s aborted launch was losing the balloon. The balloons are so fragile that once they are taken out of the box, they cannot be reused. The team has one more balloon. Team members said they are looking for a backup, but that could take four weeks or more.
As he ascended high above the earth, Baumgartner took to Twitter to greet his fans from space.
He tweeted: ‘Live from space! World you are beautiful.’
Keeping in touch: Baumgartner shouted out to his fans on Twitter, from more than 100,000 feet above earth
Art Thompson, the project’s technical director, said there likely would be windows in the weather for making the jump through November, but declined to speculate on long-term plans beyond that.
The jump is being sponsored by energy drink maker Red Bull. The costs have not been disclosed.
But Thompson said on Wednesday the balloons cost several hundred thousand dollars each, and he estimated the team lost $60,000 to $70,000 in helium with the aborted jump.
Weather conditions at the Roswell launch site caused Tuesday’s delay as Baumgartner’s three-hour ascent in a high-altitude balloon cannot start unless ground wind speeds are below two miles an hour.
The record-breaking attempt had been scheduled to begin at 11.30am but the launch was called off at 11.46am local time.
Meteorologists said Wednesday morning should have provide ideal weather conditions for the Austrian as he attempts to become the first human to break the sound barrier unaided by a vehicle.
However, when the Austrian finally entered the capsule just before 11am MDT, the crews discovered that winds 700 feet above the ground, at the top of the balloon, were 20 mph, which was far above the safe limit of 3 mph.
Baumgartner plans to travel faster than the speed of sound with only the benefit of a high-tech suit.
Dr. Jonathan Clark, Baumgartner’s medical director, has told reporters he expects the pressurized spacesuit to protect him from the shock waves of breaking the sound barrier.
If all goes well and he survives the jump, NASA could certify a new generation of spacesuits for protecting astronauts and provide an escape option from spacecraft at 120,000 feet, he said.
Any contact with the capsule on his exit could tear the pressurized suit. A rip could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as 70 degrees below zero. It could cause potentially lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids, a condition known as “boiling blood.”
The nightmare scenario that Felix’s project director likens to a ‘horror film’ would involve his blood boiling, brain bursting and eyeballs popping out – all of it watched live via the internet around the globe.
This may sound like the sort of lunatic feat that no one but a man who has spent 20 years at the more extreme end of extreme sports would want anything to do with.
But a team of engineers, doctors and pilots have spent five years working alongside Baumgartner, 43, to ensure he gets down alive and in one piece.
Banishing talk of nerves, he says he would never jump if the odds were against him. And he insists he didn’t have a death wish.
Of the skeptics who will be holding their hands in front of their eyes as he hurtles towards Earth at nearly 700mph, he says simply: ‘I think they underestimate the skills of a skydiver.’
Fearless Felix has been flinging himself out of planes and off skyscrapers for years.
He has clocked up 2,500 skydiving jumps, including one in which he became the first person to ‘fly’ across the English Channel, with carbon-fibre wings strapped to his back.
He has performed various horrifying ‘base jumps’, freefalling off the Christ statue in Rio and leaping head-first into a pitch black, 620ft-deep cave in Croatia.
Baumgartner has said that the supersonic plunge will be the end of his ‘journey’ as a daredevil.
Ahead of his grand finale, he has completed a couple of high-altitude dress rehearsals. In July, he leapt from 96,640ft – just 6,000ft shy of a world record set in 1960 by Joe Kittinger, a U.S. air force test pilot.
The grandfather of stratosphere skydiving, 84-year-old Colonel Kittinger became Baumgartner’s mentor and was the voice he heard in his headset as he communicates with mission control before and during the jump.
‘You can feel in your stomach and every part of your body that it does not want to be there,’ said the Austrian, a former military parachutist, laconically.
Baumgartner’s body was encased in a specially designed $200,000 spacesuit. It has an insulating exterior that can withstand extreme temperatures, and an airtight inner layer filled with pressurised oxygen.
It also has one crucial difference to the spacesuits worn by astronauts, which is that it remains highly flexible when it is fully pressurised.
Baumgartner’s visor is fitted with an intensely powerful heat regulator that should keep his view free of fog and frost.
The suit’s 12lb chest pack contains monitoring and tracking equipment together with a voice transmitter so he can talk to mission control on the way down. The pack is connected to a device on his wrist that allows him to monitor his speed and altitude.
The capsule in which he’ll make his ascent is 11ft high and 8ft in diameter, made from fibreglass strengthened by an internal metal frame, and weighs as much as a Volkswagen Beetle.
It was designed by some of the scientists who created the U.S. stealth bomber and is based on the famous Nasa Apollo rocket, but with a few key design differences.
The exit hatch is bigger for a start, designed to prevent the sort of catastrophe that befell Soviet high-altitude sky diver Pyotr Dolgov in 1962. Struggling to leave his capsule in his cumbersome spacesuit, Dolgov cracked his visor slightly on the door.
He was dead by the time he landed, a victim of ebullism, the terrifying condition in which the drastically lower air pressure above 62,000ft makes liquids in the body start to bubble and vaporise, inflating the body and bringing unconsciousness within 15 seconds.
When inflated, it is as high as a 55-story building with a volume of 30 million cubic feet.