Human rocket Felix Baumgartner wowed the world yesterday by breaking the sound barrier in nothing more than a spacesuit — leaping from 24 miles above the Earth and calmly walking away unaided after landing in a field in Roswell, NM.
Baumgartner, a 43-year-old Austrian, hit Mach 1.24, or 833.9 mph, according to preliminary data, and became the first person to reach supersonic speed without traveling in a jet or a spacecraft. The capsule he jumped from had reached an altitude of 128,100 feet above Earth, carried by a 55-story ultra-thin helium balloon.
The jump — during which “Fearless Felix” hit a top speed of 833.9 mph, well above the speed of sound at 768 mph — came on the 65th anniversary of retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Chuck Yeager’s famed flight in which he became the first man to break the sound barrier in an airplane.
The 89-year-old Yeager flew in the back seat yesterday of an F-15 Eagle as it broke the sound barrier at more than 30,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert, the area where he first achieved the feat in 1947.
With yesterday’s jump, Baumgartner, a former paratrooper, broke several records: fastest descent by a man outside a craft, highest free fall and the highest manned balloon trip.
The only record he fell short of breaking was longest free fall in terms of time. Baumgartner fell for 4 minutes, 22 seconds before activating his parachute, just shy of the 4:36 mark set in 1960 by retired Air Force Col. Joseph Kittinger, now 84.
Before the leap, Baumgartner was lifted to the heavens in a capsule in a three-hour helium balloon ride.
There was an early question over whether his face shield fit properly. In the first minutes of the jump, he spun like a top before straightening out.
His feat was seen by a YouTube record of 7.3 million simultaneous viewers and broadcast live on 40 TV stations in 50 nations.
“When I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records anymore, you do not think about gaining scientific data,” Baumgartner said after the jump. “The only thing you want is to come back alive.”
The tightly-orchestrated jump meant primarily to entertain became much more than that in the dizzying, breathtaking moment – a collectively shared cross between Neil Armstrong’s moon landing and Evel Knievel’s famed motorcycle jumps on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
The event happened without a network broadcast in the United States, though organizers said more than 40 television stations in 50 countries – including cable’s Discovery Channel in the U.S. – carried the live feed. Instead, millions flocked online, drawing more than 8 million simultaneous views to a YouTube live stream at its peak, YouTube officials said.
More than 130 digital outlets carried the live feed, organizers said.
It was a last hurrah for what some have billed as a dying Space Age, as NASA’s shuttle program ends and the ways humans explore space is dramatically changing. As the jump unfolded, the space shuttle Endeavor crept toward a Los Angeles museum, where it will become nothing more than an exhibit.
Landing on his feet in the desert, the man known as “Fearless Felix” lifted his arms in victory to the cheers of jubilant friends and spectators who closely followed at a command center. Among them was his mother, Eva Baumgartner, who was overcome with emotion, crying.
“Sometimes we have to get really high to see how small we are,” an exuberant Baumgartner told reporters outside mission control after the jump.
Although he broke the sound barrier, the highest manned-balloon flight record and became the man to jump from the highest altitude, he failed to break Kittinger’s 5 minute and 35 second longest free fall record. Baumgartner’s was timed at 4 minutes and 20 seconds in free fall.
He said he opened his parachute at 5,000 feet because that was the plan.
“I was putting everything out there, and hope for the best and if we left one record for Joe – hey it’s fine,” he said when asked if he intentionally left the record for Kittinger to hold. “We needed Joe Kittinger to help us break his own record, and that tells the story of how difficult it was and how smart they were in the 60′s. He is 84 years old, and he is still so bright and intelligent and enthusiastic”.
Baumgartner has said he plans to settle down with his girlfriend and fly helicopters on mountain rescue and firefighting missions in the U.S. and Austria.
Before that, though, he said, “I’ll go back to LA to chill out for a few days.”