Red Bull Stratos: Mission to the Edge of Space

Today at approximately 8:30 am PST, Austrian skydiver, Felix Baumgartner (known as “Fearless Felix”), lifted off in a capsule tethered to a massive helium ballooon from Roswell, NM to reach a height of about 128,000 feet (about 24 miles) to make his parachute jump. Baumgartner, who is 43 years old, is the first human to break the sound barrier in a freefall — coincidentally, on the very same day in 1947 that pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier flying in an X-1 experimental plane. Baumgartner’s five-year effort, ”Red Bull Stratos: Mission the the Edge of Space” has a crew of over 300 members, including top experts in aeronautics, engineering, and medicine, and is sponsored by energy drink maker, Red Bull. Colonel Joe Kittenger, USAF (retired) was Baumgartner’s mentor and mission control’s primary point of contact during the ascent. Baumgartner was attempting to break four world records as well as gather critical data for future aerospace projects and missions.

Prior to the Red Bull Stratos mission, Kittenger held three world records, all achieved in 1960: 1. Highest parachute jump/freefall (102,800 feet, about 19 miles); 2. Fastest jump/freefall (614 mph); and 3. Longest freefall (4:36 minutes). Another record, highest manned balloon flight, is held by Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather Jr. and US Navy Reserve Captain Malcolm Ross who ascended to 113,740 (about 21.5 miles) over the Gulf of Mexico in 1961.

Today, Baumgartner broke 3 of those records: 1. Highest parachute jump/freefall: 128,097 feet (24.2 miles); 2. Fastest jump/freefall: 833.9 mph, traveling faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1.24); and 3. Highest manned balloon flight: 128, 097 feet. Baumgartner’s freefall time of 4:19 was 17 seconds short of displacing his mentor’s record time of 4:36.

The scene played out in space was reminiscent of Armstrong’s walk on the moon, as millions of viewers from around the world collectively watched this spectacular death-defying jump. More than 8 million people watched Red Bull’s live feed on YouTube, and the event was broadcast on 130 digital feeds and 40 television stations in 50 countries.

What does it feel like to be standing on a platform 24 miles above the earth’s surface? Baumgartner explained, “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 want is to come back alive.” Right before he stepped off the step of his capsule, as the earth loomed far below, Baumgartner made a promise he kept: “I ‘m going home now.” Unfortunately, due to his pressurized suit which blocks out noise and the feeling of rushing air, Baumgartner could not really enjoy the sensation of traveling at Mach 1.24: “[it is] hard to describe because you don’t feel it.” 

The early part of the jump, when Baumgartner began spinning uncontrollably, was terrifying for both the mission control team and Baumgartner. Baumgartner elaborates: “When I was spinning first 10, 20 seconds, I never thought I was going to lose my life but I was disappointed because I’m going to lose my record. I put seven years of my life into this. In that situation, when you spin around, it’s like hell and you don’t know if you can get out of that spin or not. Of course, it was terrifying. I was fighting all the way down because I knew that there must be a moment where I can handle it.”

The numbers behind the Red Bull Stratos are as impressive as Baumgartner’s tenacity and audacity.

Volume of helium balloon: 30 million cubic feet
Size of balloon: 334.8 feet tall, if stretched flat would cover 40 acres
Weight of balloon: 3,708 pounds (uninflated)
Thickness of balloon: 1/10 of a sandwich bag
Weight of capsule: 3,000 pounds
Height of capsule: 11 feet high (base is 8 feet in diameter)
Number of cameras covering event: 30

Height of jump: 128,097 feet (24.2 miles)
Height comparisons:
….. Small planes fly at 10,000 to 12,000 feet
….. Passenger airplanes fly at 32,000 to 40,000 feet
….. The Concorde, now retired, flew at 57,000 feet at Mach 2
….. U2 spy planes fly at 120,000 feet or higher
….. The space shuttle, now retired, was designed to fly between 115-600 miles up
….. Altitude of International Space Station: 180-190 miles up
….. Altitude of Hubble Space Telescope: 360-370 miles up

Rate of ascent: about 1,00o feet per minute
Time to reach highest point in flight (128,097 feet): about 2 hours
Length of free fall (from capsule to ground): 9:03 minutes
Temperature at 128,000 feet: About 14.1 Fahrenheit
Lowest temperature in flight: -90 degrees Fahrenheit at about 40,000 feet
Air pressure at 128,000 feet: .07 psi
Air pressure at sea level: 14.7 psi

Speed at jump: maximum speed of 833.9 mph within 30 seconds, during a freefall of 119,846 feet
Speed in atmosphere: As he reaches 92,000 feet, Baumgartner  slows down to about 120 mph
Altitude for deployment of parachute: About 5,000 feet
Touchdown on terra firma: 11:17 am PST

Number of viewer’s of Baumgartner’s YouTube video: over 10 million within 3 days.

To honor Baumgartner’s amazing world-record setting jump, toy builders for the model making fair in Vienna have created an entertaining reenactment using Lego bricks.
The video can be seen here.

View Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic skydive here.

For further reading:

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