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Skydiver shatters world record with 24-mile leap

10:25 AM, Oct 15, 2012   |    comments
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Felix Baumgartner made history when he successfully leaped from a helium balloon 24 miles in the sky, hitting 729 miles an hour in descent.

(USA TODAY) - Moments before stepping off a small metal platform near Roswell, N.M., on Sunday and plunging to Earth from 24 miles in space, Austrian sky diver Felix Baumgartner offered a few static-filled words for posterity.

"Sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you are," said Baumgartner, 43. Then he jumped, a diminishing white dot against an impossibly black sky.

With his leap from 128,000 feet, Baumgartner becomes a larger-than-life figure in aerospace history, joining the ranks of those who have pushed personal and technological limits as they tempted fate and tested science.

He reached 833.9 mph, or mach 1.24, which is faster than the speed of sound. No one has ever reached that speed wearing only a high-tech suit.

He fell at supersonic speeds on the same date in 1947 that test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in an aircraft.

Adding to his inevitable fame is the fact that the feat was streamed live on computers and smartphones around the world using more than 30 high-definition cameras arrayed on the ground as well as in and outside of his capsule. A two-hour BBC documentary will hit TV soon, and there surely will be the inevitable chats with talk show hosts and calls from admirers.

But so far none of that seems to be getting to Baumgartner's buzz-cut head.

Baumgartner's jump was possible partly due to an expensive operation packed with top scientists, but also to the pioneering work of adventurers past, says Margaret Weitekamp, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum focusing on popular culture and spaceflight.

"In many ways, Felix was standing on the shoulders of giants," she said. "Baumgartner himself will be advancing the science of how the human body responds to the upper atmosphere, just as many test pilots did before him."

The event seemed to be an irresistible blend of space derring-do and extreme sports insanity, particularly at the moment when Baumgartner could be seen standing on the edge of space in frightening HD clarity.

"I was actually scared at that point," said Clara Moskowitz, assistant editor at "I know he captured the attention of a lot of people, because I had friends who have no interest in space emailing and texting me. This was a human being literally stepping into the unknown. It doesn't get more intense than that."

The Austrian skydiver's leap Sunday beat the record set by retired Air Force colonel Joe Kittinger, who in 1960 plunged out of an open basket from 102,800 feet. Kittinger served as a mentor to Baumgartner throughout the five-year project.

The mission, dubbed Red Bull Stratos after the Austrian energy drink company that sponsored the jump, also set records for highest manned balloon flight (113,740 feet in 1961) and fastest free fall (Kittinger at 614 mph).

Red Bull Stratos marks yet another aerospace advance by a private company, filling the void left by the massive state-sponsored space initiatives that once were the hallmark of American and Russian scientific programs. Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic remain dedicated to putting civilians in space, and Stratos' mission was to test how humans and space suits would react to emergency exits at high altitude.

Baumgartner's jump was not without drama. He complained about a lack of heat in his helmet on the way up, which caused mission engineers to debate whether or not to bring him down in the capsule. Then, on the descent, the skydiver could be seen by an infrared camera as a tiny white dot against a black backdrop spinning wildly, precisely the situation the team was hoping to avoid as it could lead to a loss of consciousness or worse.

But Baumgartner got that spin under control, and minutes later landed gracefully on his feet in the dusty New Mexican desert. The sky diver immediately fell to knees. Cameras trained on his family - who had never been to the United States before - showed his parents, brother and his girlfriend cheering.

Baumgartner has been working his way up to this world record jump from the edge of space for the past few years, twice running into speed bumps.

Austrian promoter Daniel Hogan derailed the first mission when he sued Red Bull Stratos claiming he'd thought of the idea first. That suit was settled out of court last summer.

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