One Giant Leap: Falling to Earth From The Edge of Space

Can a human being survive breaking the sound barrier during a plummet from the edge of space?

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The tattoo on Felix Baumgartner's right arm reads "Born to Fly," but it might as well say "Born to Fall," because he does it better than anyone. Falling out of planes, off the world's tallest buildings, and into pitch-black holes in the earth. And now, from 120,000 feet above the surface of our planet.

Next month, the 43-year-old Austrian plans to fall further and faster than anyone ever before when he attempts to break the world record for highest skydive—22.8 miles above the Earth's surface—that has stood for more than 50 years. During the attempt, he's expected to become the first person to break the speed of sound during freefall.

[PHOTOS from Baumgartner's Test Jump]

On July 25, Baumgartner's jump from 96,640 feet represented the last test run before next month's record-setting attempt.

The current record holder and Baumgarter's right-hand man through this process is retired Air Force colonel Joseph Kittinger, who turns 84 on July 27, and fell into the record books when he jumped from an altitude of 102,800 feet on August 16, 1960 as part of Project Excelsior, a program that tested how pilot pressure suits would perform at high altitudes and was a precursor to NASA's manned space program.

Over the past few years, as the pair have worked on the mission, dubbed Red Bull Stratos, they've bonded over the fact that they're the only two men to have willingly jumped from the edge of space and have lived to tell the tale.

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Kittinger could have been an astronaut. Perhaps he should have been one. When word came about halfway through the Project Excelsior that he could volunteer for the astronaut program, he thought long and hard about it, and eventually passed.

"I would have loved to have gone to space," he says. "But my boss said if I left [to become an astronaut], it would take two years to get back up to speed with [Excelsior]. I wanted to continue with the work I was doing and I never regretted it."

Looking at the photos from his jumps, it looks like he got close enough. The sky is black and his altitude—102,800 feet, well into the stratosphere, is every bit as hostile as outer space.

At that height, the atmosphere is nearly a complete vacuum. There is very little air and it's bitterly cold. It's not a great place for a human to spend a lot of time.

"It's not fun, it's very serious business," he says of jumping. "You don't go up there and laugh about it."

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Not much about the stratosphere has changed since the 60s. Not much has changed about the human body, either.

"There have been tremendous advances in pressure suits, cameras, avionics, and monitoring information. One thing that has not changed is how hostile it is in space," he says. "It'll never change."

Kittinger knows that better than anyone. That's why it's so important to Baumgartner to have him on the team. No matter how many fail safes are installed in the equipment, only one other person has looked out into the dark horizon and taken the plunge.

"Joe's been up this mountain before," Baumgartner says. "Me and Joe, we run the mission. I know the guy on the other line is the guy who has been there and done that. No one else knows what you're feeling. They know the science, but not the emotions. You can die within 15 seconds up there."

"You want someone who understands how you feel, and that's Joe Kittinger," he adds.

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The picture of Baumgartner's March test jump has been called one of the best of 2012. He's standing 71,000 feet above his landing spot, looking out over the curvature of the Earth. The view is incredible.

"When I look at that picture, it's like 'Wow, that was amazing, I'm right there on the edge,'" he says. "You work on something for five years, you want to stand there and inhale the moment—you realize that this is big. I realized very few people had ever been there before."

But his moment of reflection lasted a couple seconds.

"I was proud of the moment, and then it was like clockwork," he says. "Everyone asks me what I was thinking, and I was just thinking: 'I have a job to do.'"