Skydiver Prepares To Jump From Edge Of Space

For the past five years, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner has been preparing for the biggest jump of his – or anyone else’s – career. On Monday, October 8, he hopes to climb inside a specially designed capsule that, with the help of a balloon filled with helium, will carry him to the very edge of space. And when he has reached a height of 120,000 feet (About 23 miles!) above the surface of the planet, Baumgartner intends to step out of that capsule and free fall back to Earth. If successful, it’ll be the highest, not to mention the most audacious, skydive in history.

In preparation for his history-making leap, Baumgartner has already completed two practice jumps at lower altitudes. The most recent of those test runs took place back in July when he dove from 96,640 feet. That successful effort paved the way for the final jump next week, which will take place in the skies over New Mexico.

In addition to being the highest skydive in history, this could also be the fastest. Baumgartner expects to hit speeds in excess of 690 mph, which would actually be faster than the speed of sound. In the near vacuum found at the edge of space, he should break the sound barrier in about 30 seconds. After that, he’ll free fall for another five minutes before pulling his ripcord, which will release his parachute and allow him to drift safely back to Earth. The entire jump should last somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes and will be broadcast live on the web at his descent, Baumgartner will be wearing a pressure suit that has been specifically designed to protect him from the harsh elements of the upper atmosphere. That suit, which is not unlike something an astronaut would wear, will be vital to his safe return. If it suffers even the slights tear while exiting the capsule or during the high-speed drop, Felix could develop bubbles in his blood stream that could be potentially lethal. This is similar to the danger that scuba divers face when returning to the surface too quickly.

Baumgartner’s team has taken great pains to ensure that he survives this jump. In addition to his main parachute, he also has a second back-up chute that he can use in case of an emergency. If Felix should blackout while making the descent or go into an uncontrollable flat spin, a smaller, third parachute will automatically deploy to help slow his fall and regain control. Hopefully none of those systems will be needed, however, and his main chute will function properly.

Right now, all eyes are on the weather. Conditions are expected to be good for a Monday jump, but if the winds are too high or storms are in the area, it’s possible that Baumgartner will scrub the attempt. With a little luck, however, he should be making his historic jump right on schedule.

[Photo credit: Jay Nemeth/Red Bull Stratos]