Red Bull has out-extremed itself with the Red Bull Stratos project. The company is sponsoring Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s attempt to become the first person ever to break the sound barrier with his own body.
Baumgartner is best known for his 2003 ride across the English Channel via a carbon wing. On this mission, however, he’ll be wearing nothing but a space suit as he seeks to beat the record of retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger, who made a 102,800 stratospheric jump in 1960. Baumgartner plans to ride a helium balloon-powered capsule to the upper stratosphere to at least 120,000 feet. There he’ll launch a freefall jump that could exceed Mach 1.0—690 miles an hour, before he parachutes to the ground.
One of aerospace’s most enduring records was set 50 years ago by Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger, who made the highest-ever parachute jump from a balloon floating 102,800 feet above the ground. It was one giant leap that helped blaze a trail for the Space Age.
Ever since then, skydivers in search of glory have tried unsuccessfully to break that record. Now Felix Baumgartner, who is already renowned for skyjumping across the English Channel, is gearing up to make the attempt this year – with Kittinger’s help.
“With Joe on board, I feel safe,” Baumgartner said on NBC’s TODAY show. “I’m really looking forward to doing this.”
Details about Baumgartner’s near-space mission came out on Friday during a series of announcements by its corporate sponsor, Red Bull. The mission represents one giant leap for Red Bull, which has long sponsored a team of skyjumpers to market its energy drinks. Although the company hasn’t said how much the Red Bull Stratos mission will cost, the price tag seems likely to hit hundreds of thousands of dollars, or millions.
Baumgartner, 40, said the record attempt would mark “the next logical step” in his two-decade career as a parachute jumper. The highlight so far has been his English Channel crossing in 2003 - which involved jumping from a plane 33,000 feet over the white cliffs of Dover and gliding 22 miles to the French coast in a suit equipped with wings and a chute. He has also done death-defying (and security-defying) jumps from monuments in Brazil, France, Sweden and Taiwan.
The Stratos mission is something completely different, though. It would involve rising up in a pressurized balloon cabin to a height of 120,000 feet - and then taking one big step out of the cabin, wearing a prototype spacesuit.
“Within the first 30 seconds, I’m going to reach the speed of sound,” Baumgartner said.
Kittinger came close to doing that during his Project Excelsior parachute jump in 1960, which was aimed at studying how military pilots could best endure high-altitude ejections. The record-setting fall was actually Kittinger’s third and final outing for Excelsior. During the first jump, he blacked out and survived only because his automatic chute-opening system worked. During the third jump, one of Kittinger’s gloves malfunctioned, but he again survived with all his body parts intact.
50 years of chasing the ‘Right Stuff’
Today, at the age of 81, Kittinger looks back at his achievement with the proper attitude of “Right Stuff” coolness: “When it came time to go, I was ready to go,” he said.
And now he believes it’s time for his record to go – which is why he’s serving as one of Baumgartner’s advisers. “Records are meant to be broken,” he said. “It’s human nature.”
The reason why Kittinger’s record has stood so long is not for lack of trying. There’s a long list of skydivers who have tried, including Australia’s Rodd Millner, America’s Cheryl Stearns, Britain’s Steve Truglia and France’s Michel Fournier. No one has succeeded so far.
It looked as if Fournier might have done it in 2008 with his “Big Jump” in Saskatchewan – but his high-altitude balloon slipped away as it was being inflated, leaving Fournier and his capsule on the ground.
Fournier has estimated that his efforts to break Kittinger’s record have cost nearly $20 million so far, and he’s not done yet. In fact, a near-space race may be shaping up. The Frenchman says he’s aiming to make another attempt in Canada this May – that is, assuming the weather is favorable and he can come up with the rest of the $500,000 (€360,000) that’s required for the project.
The people behind Baumgartner’s attempt say they plan to make the attempt sometime this year, somewhere in North America. But they can’t yet be more precise on those points. They say the timing will depend in part upon the development and testing of the pressure suit, the high-altitude balloon and other high-tech essentials.
Red Bull isn’t the only company behind the project. For example, the pressure suit is being developed by David Clark Co., which has also helped create spacesuits for NASA and high-altitude suits for the U.S. military. The company’s work on Baumgartner’s giant leap could well carry over to the creation of NASA’s next spacesuit.
Red Bull is already working out deals for live coverage of Baumgartner’s mission on TV, the Web and mobile phones. That would include a 90-minute documentary for the BBC and the National Geographic Channel, tentatively titled “Space Dive.”