One Fear Nearly Destroyed Felix Baumgartner's Bid To Break The Sound Barrier

Felix Baumgartner

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

At 128,000 feet above the New Mexican desert, Felix Baumgartner steps outside his cramped space capsule onto a skateboard-sized platform. A bulky pressurised suit attached to an eight-pound helmet is the 43-year-old’s only protection from extreme cold temperatures and air pressure so low that human tissues can actually turn to gas.”Sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you are,” the Austrian, with some 2,500 jumps already under his belt, said before taking the biggest leap of his career on Oct. 14, 2012.   

Click here to relive the supersonic jump >
To the eight million people watching the space jump live on YouTube, Baumgartner appears as a tiny white dot against a black backdrop. When he comes back into focus, dangling beneath a Red Bull emblazoned parachute, he is an international celebrity who can claim the title of world’s fastest man.    

“When I was standing there on top of the world you become so humble you do not think about breaking records anymore. You do not think about gaining scientific data; the only thing you that you want is to come back alive. You do not want to die in front of your parents, your girlfriend and all these people watching this,” Baumgartner said of the hair-raising 24-mile plunge.  

But smash records he did.   

Reaching a top speed of 833.9 mph, the perennial risk-taker became the first person to break the speed of sound without an aircraft, exactly 65 years after U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a rocket plane.

The unprecedented dive helped Baumgartner shatter two other world records: Highest manned balloon flight and highest altitude jump.

The latter milestone was first set by former Air Force test pilot Joseph Kittinger in 1960, who served as Baumgartner’s mentor throughout five years of rigorous training. 

The project, sponsored by Austrian energy drink maker Red Bull, was nearly derailed by the seasoned skydiver’s fear of being stuck inside his own high-tech space suit for long stretches of time

Describing his own battle with claustrophobia, Baumgartner told The Guardian’s Donald McRae, “I feared and hated the suit because of my desire for freedom. I started skydiving because I loved the idea of freedom. But you get trapped in a spacesuit, and people are adding weights to it every day.” 

Baumgartner, who began skydiving at age 16, could attest to jumping from the world’s tallest building, diving off a 902-foot cliff, and soaring across the English channel with carbon fibre wings, but a rigid white getup — and his only armour against a very unpleasant death — was now giving the hardy Austrian panic attacks.

Although the suit never became a “second skin” Baumgartner eventually learned to cope with his anxiety with help of sports psychologists. When the time came for his record-setting leap, he used skills gained over hundreds of simulations to pull out of a wild spin that could have easily taken his life.

The team thinks they heard Baumgartner blast through the sound barrier as they waited anxiously on the ground. “We heard a sound like a sonic boom,” capsule crew chief Jon Wells said in a statement. “A lot of us are from aerospace backgrounds and we looked at each other, practically in disbelief. We know that sound.”  

For the former Austrian paratrooper, this was undoubtedly a personal challenge. But the mission was also a hallmark for science. It delivered valuable information about an astronaut’s chances for survival at extreme altitudes, which is important for future space travel.

“For somebody to jump from near space and survive the transition through the sound barrier had never been done before, and this has contributed immensely to the survival advancements for future spacecraft,” Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former space shuttle crew surgeon and the mission’s medical director said on the Red Bull Stratos blog. He added, “Already a lot of companies are talking about: What did we learn? How soon can we get this information? And so this is going to make a substantial difference. It was a true aviation milestone.”

With the jump behind him, Baumgartner is preparing to test the limits in the next chapter of his life — as a helicopter pilot on mountain rescues and husband of a former Austrian beauty queen.  

Preparations for the big launch begin before sunrise on Sunday, Oct. 14. The weather looks good for an early launch, though lift-off is eventually delayed two hours.

Felix steps out of his trailer in his full-pressure and helmet. The parachute pack on his back weights 60 pounds alone.

Felix begins to breathe pure oxygen to remove nitrogen from his bloodstream about two hours before launch.

Around 10:45 a.m. the winds are finally calm enough to begin inflation of the balloon that will carry Felix to the stratosphere.

Around 11:30 a.m. a crane releases the capsule attached to the balloon.

The mission crew rejoices!

Felix's mum, Eva, watches her son travel up into the sky. She cried when the balloon launched.

On the two-hour journey to the stratosphere there is some concern that the heater in Felix's visor isn't working, allowing his visor to fog up.

Around 1:40 p.m., the balloon passes its target of 120,000 feet. Felix has already broken one record — highest manned balloon flight — before he even leaves the capsule.

A few minutes later the decision is made that Felix will jump, despite the face-plate heater issue.

Joe Kittinger in mission control runs through an exit check list. He tells Felix to depressurize the space capsule in preparation to open the door.

The space capsule door opens and Felix steps out onto a skateboard-size platform.

And then, he jumps.

Over his radio, he tells us that his visor is fogging up.

But everything appears to be ok once we see his signature Red Bull parachute deploy.

Felix makes a beautiful landing and raises his arm in celebration.

His parents (centre), girlfriend (far right) and assistant (far left) are elated.

Preliminary data shows that Felix achieved his goal to break the speed of sound, reaching a top speed of 833.9 mph or Mach 1.24.

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