Free Falling from Space

On the morning of Oct 14, 2012, millions of people around the world watched as Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner strapped himself into a capsule towed beneath a 55-story polyethylene balloon and ascended Spaceward from a dusty launch site on the outskirts of Roswell, New Mexico.

He was going to climb to the edge of the atmosphere, and when he arrived, he was going to jump.

The free fall world record had long been held by Joseph Kittinger, a retired US Air Force Colonel and famed fighter pilot who, in 1960, leapt from 102,800 feet and nearly broke the sound barrier with his body.

Nearly, but not quite.

Such “nearlies” are the ambrosia on which the planet’s daredevils feed, an irresistible call to arms for born record-breakers like Baumgartner. He wanted to be the first man to make a hypersonic jump.

In 1999, only one year into his BASE jumping career, he snuck into one of the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and jumped off of a window washing rig, securing the world record for highest jump from a building. It was not for another eight years that his feat was trumped–by himself–with a death-defying leap from a 1,670-foot-tall office tower in Taipei, Taiwan. Not satisfied with these records alone, he also climbed Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue and dove from the palm of Jesus’ hand, nabbing the record for lowest BASE jump in history.

Then during that 2012 morning, roughly 30 million cubic feet of helium pulled the pod in which he sat upwards through 1,000 feet of sky each minute, until the russet patchwork of the arid American southwest sank beneath a thin veil of cloud and vapor.

At 45,000 feet, Baumgartner blew through the highest cruising altitude possible for a Boeing 747 jet. Twenty minutes later–at 12 miles above sea level–he traversed the Armstrong limit, an altitude at which atmospheric pressure is so low that human blood will boil at normal body temperature. Without the protection of a pressurized suit, exposure at this height would cause water vapor to form in the body’s soft tissues and blood, forcing the organs to balloon up to grotesque proportions. This gruesome and lethal outcome was given the name “explosive decompression” for a reason.

Kittinger experienced some of these harrowing effects during his record-setting jump in 1960, when the right glove of his suit failed to pressurize as he rose through increasingly thin layers of the atmosphere. By the time he had fallen to the ground again, his hand had lost all circulation and had swelled to double its size.

Baumgartner was outfitted with a specially engineered suit that should–if all went according to plan–protect him from any such threat. But violent decompression was not the only risk that awaited him at the end of the world.

Photo courtesy of Volkmar Wentzel.

The primary reason for Kittinger’s ascent in the first place was to study the effects of free fall on the human body when ejecting from military jets flying at high altitudes. When test dummies were dropped from around 100,000 feet, they naturally entered into a flat spin, or a deadly rotation that could top 200 revolutions per minute. Under these conditions, a person would lose consciousness after about 10 seconds, and the G-force could be fatal.

The solution they settled upon was to deploy a small parachute called a drogue after 16 seconds of free fall. Theoretically, the chute would serve to stabilize any errant motion.

On Nov 16, 1959, during a preliminary test jump from an altitude of 76,400 feet, Kittinger’s stabilization unit deployed prematurely and caused his drogue chute to eject a mere two seconds into free fall. The six-foot canopy immediately entangled itself around his neck and forced his body into the very rotation it had been designed to prevent. Despite his best efforts to counter the flat spin that whipped him into increasingly tight spirals, he was utterly helpless.

“Soon I knew there was nothing I could do,” he later recounted to National Geographic. “I thought this was the end. I began to pray, and then I lost consciousness.”

Kittinger came to while floating 10,000 feet above the ground, dangling beneath an emergency parachute that had deployed while he was unconscious.

At two and a half hours into Baumgartner’s own ascent, when he had reached an altitude of 24 miles above the surface of the Earth, Kittinger radioed from Mission Control to guide him through a 40-item checklist. No doubt, as a three-tour Vietnam fighter pilot who had survived a Mach 1 ejection when enemies shot down his plane, and as the first-ever individual to have jumped from the fringes of Earth’s atmosphere, Kittinger was best-suited to play the voice in the parachutist’s ear.

In fact, they had developed such a close bond that Baumgartner would not permit contact from anyone else on the ground during the mission. On a 20-second delayed live feed, the world watched as he followed Kittinger’s instructions and opened the module’s door to the bare atmosphere of near-space.

“Item 26, move seat to the rear of capsule,” says Kittinger in the recording. Faced with the stark horizon of black above and blue below, Baumgartner slides his seat against the rear of the capsule.

“Item 27, lift legs into the door threshold.” Baumgartner’s breath grows heavy in the audio.

“Item 28, slide the seat forward.” From a camera attached to the outside of the pod, millions of viewers see two white-suited legs emerge into the light.

“Item 29, release seatbelt.” There is a long pause. Baumgartner doesn’t move. “Item 29, Felix, release the seatbelt.” After several heavy breaths he unclasps the safety belt. He pulls himself forward and sits on the outermost ledge. He checks his chutes, his faceplate, and chest pack.

“Disconnect both oxygen supply hoses.” Another long pause. The video shows Baumgartner with his hands on the hoses, motionless. Kittinger delivers the command a second time, with a gruffness that challenges whether Baumgartner doubts the mission.

Finally, mechanically, Baumgartner disconnects his own oxygen and steps out onto a platform no wider than his own boot print, now fully outside of the safety of the module. With his back pressed fast to the 3,000-pound vessel, beneath the unobscured darkness of outer space, he delivers a garbled transmission:

“I know the whole world is watching now. And I wish the world could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to get up really high to understand how small you really are. I’m going home now.”

With his leap, Baumgartner became the first human to break the sound barrier with his body. He captured, even if ephemerally, the world record for highest free fall. Most importantly, by imperiling himself at the edge of the world, he provided scientists and aeronautical engineers with invaluable data that will continue to inform the future of space exploration, a testament that will resound with his name long after the records are broken.

Featured photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.