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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As Malcolm Todd, the project's life support engineer says: "The fastest way down is to jump."

That's how it was for Kittinger—no hesitation, just finish the mission—and that's what he likes about Baumgartner.

Other would-be jumpers have wanted to work with Kittinger, but Baumgartner and Red Bull were the only ones who have gotten him to sign on. However, this event isn't just a publicity stunt. While Baumgartner is eager to break the record, and he's concerned with his legacy and image, he also takes the science very seriously.

"Over the last few years, I've gotten phone calls from all over the world from people who want to beat my record. Most of them had no idea about what the challenge was, the danger involved. They just wanted a record," Kittinger says. "I would not get involved with these people. I didn't want to be responsible for killing someone."

That's why Baumgartner, after years of preparation, will perform the stunt in a series of three jumps, with state-of-the-art equipment, and a team who knows what they're doing. In fact, the team they've assembled is arguably the best outside of NASA or SpaceX, the company that recently flew a spacecraft to the International Space Station.

They've got Jonathan Clark, a NASA crew surgeon whose wife died when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up high above Earth in 2003, killing everyone aboard. A full-body pressure suit like the one Baumgartner is wearing could have potentially saved her life. Clark has dedicated much of his time since that disaster to working on projects that could have saved the astronauts' lives.

Baumgartner's ultimate goal is to be etched alongside names like Neil Armstrong and Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

"There are people we remember and admire and respect forever. We still talk about the first guy on the moon. I want to be one of those guys," Baumgartner says. "In 100 years when I'm gone, people will still talk about the guy who broke the speed of sound outside of an aircraft with his own body."

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Baumgartner's father, an artist, never wanted him to jump out of planes for a living. His brother, a chef, doesn't have much interest in skydiving, either.

And when it was looking like his jump might not happen due to patent issues with the Air Force, a failed attempt to partner with the Russians, and a 2010 lawsuit from another skydiver who said he discussed breaking Kittinger's record with Red Bull in 2005, his friends weren't exactly disappointed.

"My friends and family said 'I think this is a good thing because you don't need to do this—you've already done so many wonderful things,'" Baumgartner says. "I told them—'Don't think this isn't going to happen. This is just a break.'"

Baumgartner knew as a kid that his life was in the sky. He jumped out of his first plane when he was 16, as soon as it was legal for him to do it.

"From that moment, I was connected," he says. "I wanted to fly."

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Baumgartner has jumped off Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue (setting the record for lowest BASE jump), off skyscrapers in Taipei and Malaysia, and into a pitch-black cave in Croatia. He's jumped out of a plane more than 2,500 times.

But don't call him a daredevil.

"I would say I'm a risk manager—this is a risky business, but if you surround yourself with the right people, you mitigate that risk," he says.

His jump from the middle of the stratosphere is, without a doubt, his riskiest jump yet.

His jump has to be perfect—he's got to push off of his platform with both feet at the exact same pressure, or he'll go into an ever-increasing spin—one that could leave him unconscious.

He's only got 10 minutes worth of oxygen—any delay when he exits the capsule and he'll suffocate before reaching the ground.

His suit could also fail, depressurize, or crack.

Clark, the project's medical director, puts it best: "If we have a suit breach or a loss of pressure, his skin will boil" in the vacuum of near space within 15 seconds.

That's why the preparation, exercise, computer simulations and engineering for this jump has taken five years.