Some time between July and September, weather permitting, Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old Austrian B.A.S.E. jumper, will float into space in a helium balloon -- yes, space -- and then jump. He will plummet 120,000 feet back down to Earth. His body will accelerate from a standstill to 700 mph in 30 seconds. Somewhere in between, he will break the sound barrier -- something that fighter jets do -- before the atmosphere rapidly slows him down.
Baumgartner is attempting to break Joe Kittinger's record of freefalling from 102,800 feet, set back in 1960. In the process, he would become the first person to freefall from space.
“We’re going to bring Felix back safely, and then we’re going to share what we’ve learned about the equipment, the procedures and his physiological reactions so that others can come back safely from the public and private space programs on the horizon," assured Dr. Jonathan Clark, the medical director of the Red Bull Stratos Project, the name of the daring mission.
Dr. Clark, Baumgartner's personal medical expert, is a six-time Space Shuttle crew surgeon at NASA. A parachutist in the U.S. Special Forces, he is wildly passionate about aircraft and spacecraft safety. He has been studying all known phsyical effects of the mission, particularly the point at which Baumgartner breaks the sound barrier.
During a test jump -- from more than 71,000 feet over New Mexico -- in March, Baumgartner passed through temperatures of minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Felix will experience the environment of near space at 120,000 feet," explained Dr. Clark. "It’s the vacuum of space and the extreme cold. His hands got cold in the test jump, imagine the wind chill of 360 mph and minus 90 F. His suit is pressurized to 3.5 psi (pounds per square inch), which is equivalent to 35,000 feet. All the physiologic changes that Felix experiences during the jump will be resolved when he lands back on Earth.”
"I don’t have to put myself in danger to be happy. But I have to have a challenge. This is the ultimate skydive.” -- Felix Baumgartner
At 63,000 feet, Baumgartner (pictured below) will pass through the “Armstrong Line," where the air pressure becomes so low that without pressurization, body fluids will vaporize.
“Think about how soda in a bottle looks clear until you open it and release the pressure," said Dr. Clark. "Then the bubbles come out of the solution and rise to the top. That’s essentially what would be happening in Felix’s blood and tissues if his life-support systems failed, and it can turn deadly very quickly.”
Dr. Clark's main concern, however, is a flat spin on descent.
“It is a genuine threat," he said. "The primary concerns during a flat spin are the eyes, the brain, and the cardiovascular system. If the center of rotation is in the upper body, blood rushes toward the feet, which can cause a blackout. If the rotation is centred in the lower body, blood rushes toward the head, potentially causing a condition called 'red out.'" This can can cause ocular hemorrhage and intercranial hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain).
Baumgartner, however, doesn't seem concerned.
“Breaking the speed of sound in freefall is a pioneering effort and being a pioneer requires risk," said the darevdevil. "I don’t have to put myself in danger to be happy. But I have to have a challenge. This is the ultimate skydive.”
His mentor and current record holder Joe Kittinger is confident of success. “I always tell Felix that he needs the ‘Three C’s’ – confidence in his team, confidence in his equipment and confidence in himself," he said. "At this stage, he’s got all that.”