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‘FEARLESS FELIX’ – Felix Baumgartner, in his pressurized spacesuit, falls to earth from above California City in preparation for his record-setting skydiving attempt from 120,000 feet later this year.

Red Bull Stratos

LANCASTER – At 120,000 feet above the Earth, the atmosphere that protects life below becomes a very unforgiving place. In the stratosphere, the oxygen we breathe is scarce, and even the air pressure we count on to keep our biological functions humming decreases to dangerous levels.

AN Austrian daredevil with a penchant for jumping off buildings is gearing up for an even more nerve-racking escapade: he plans to fall to Earth from a helium-filled balloon on the edge of space, dropping faster and further than any parachutist before.

Felix Baumgartner, 40, will have to live up to the “Fearless Felix” nickname that fans have given him. He wants to become the first freefalling human to break the sound barrier.

“When I jump, I’ll be going on a journey that no one has ever done,” said Baumgartner, a former member of Austria’s special forces, in an interview with The Sunday Times. “But you absolutely can’t let fear take a hold of you.”

He is not the only one dicing with death in the stratosphere. Michel Fournier, a former French paratrooper, has spent years — and most of his savings — trying to surpass the record set by Joe Kittinger, a US air force pilot, who jumped from a balloon 20 miles above the New Mexico desert in 1960.


“I’m not giving up,” said Fournier last week, describing an intense physical training progamme of parachute jumps, jogging and yoga. “I plan to raise enough funds to make another attempt in May.”

Baumgartner has secured the backing of Red Bull, the energy drink manufacturer, to gather around him an array of aerospace veterans, including Kittinger, whom he describes as his “mentor”.

“He’s the only person who has experienced anything quite like what I am going to encounter,” said Baumgartner, a professional helicopter pilot.

There is certainly no more accomplished — or daring — parachutist than the Austrian adventurer: he has thrown himself off some of the world’s highest buildings, including Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers. Sometimes he has had to disguise himself to outfox security guards trying to intercept him.

He has leapt from the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro, plunged into a 600ft-deep cave and sky-dived over the Channel. His planned jump from 120,000ft, or 23 miles, later this year — the exact date is a secret because of the competition — is “the biggest goal I can dream of”, he said.

It is also a leap into the unknown: nobody knows much about the effect on the human body of passing through the sound barrier.

“It’s a challenge,” said Baumgartner. “But it’s not my style to embark upon a project unless I’m 100% confident that I can achieve my goal.”

A team of engineers, including former Nasa scientists, is building a balloon and pressurised capsule to carry him into the stratosphere. This will involve breaking a record for the highest balloon flight. He also hopes to break the records for the longest and fastest freefall as well as the highest parachute jump.

He will wear an astronaut’s suit to protect him from perils such as oxygen deprivation, boiling body fluids, solar radiation and temperatures as low as minus 100C. The suit will also guard his ears against the sonic boom he is expected to create when passing the sound barrier at 768mph.

The biggest danger is of going into a spin and blacking out. This almost killed Kittinger in training in 1959 when a small parachute that was meant to stabilise him as he fell failed to open.

Baumgartner, a veteran of 2,500 jumps, plans to use slight body movements rather than a stabilising parachute to prevent himself losing control. Even in a bulky pressurised suit this technique worked in trials in a wind tunnel in California.

The tests were conducted at speeds well below those Baumgartner expects to reach in the near vacuum of the stratosphere. Experts are divided about whether the same technique will work when he reaches the sound barrier.

“Felix could slip right through it,” said one of the engineers, “but if half of the suit is [going at] supersonic [speed] and the other half isn’t, there could be turbulence that knocks him out of control.” There was the possibility of “flutter waves pulling back and forth among the surfaces”.

The bookies will no doubt have their say. At 64, Fournier may seem a long shot, despite his perseverance: he has sold his furniture, stamp collection and a set of vintage weapons to raise money for various attempts that have ended in failure, the last when his balloon soared into space over Alaska without him after the moorings broke loose.

Another contender is Steve Truglia, a 49-year-old British stuntman, though he seems to face similar fundraising problems, judging by an appeal for help last week on his website. Unlike Fournier he has not yet made it to the jump site.

There have been numerous other attempts to beat Kittinger’s record: one amateur skydiver tried three times in the 1960s but did not survive the third attempt. His visor opened at 57,000ft. He fell into a coma and died four months later.

“The edge of space is an incredibly hostile environment which takes no prisoners,” said Baumgartner.

Although not one to flinch at danger, Baumgartner may find that rising in the balloon may is more gut-wrenching than shooting to Earth like a comet.

“As I rise I’ll be acutely aware that I’m moving further away from my loved ones,” he said. “When I descend, I’ll know that I’m travelling towards safety.”

April 13, 2010 Posted by | california city, felix baumgartner, ilivetodayav, world record jump | , , , | Leave a comment