ROSWELL, N.M. — Austrian extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner landed gracefully on Earth Sunday after a 24-mile (38.6-kilometre) jump from the stratosphere in a dramatic, record-breaking feat that officials said made him the first skydiver to fall faster than the speed of sound.
Baumgartner came down in the eastern New Mexico desert about nine minutes after jumping from his capsule 128,100 feet (39,045 metres), or roughly 24 miles (38.6 kilometres), above Earth. He lifted his arms in victory shortly after landing, setting off loud cheers from jubilant onlookers and friends inside the mission’s control centre in Roswell, New Mexico.
“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. The only thing you want is to come back alive,” he said after the jump.
Brian Utley, a jump observer from the International Federation of Sports Aviation, said preliminary figures show Baumgartner reached a maximum speed of 833.9 mph (1,342 kph). That amounts to Mach 1.24, which is faster than the speed of sound. No one has ever reached that speed wearing only a high-tech suit.
Baumgartner says that travelling faster than sound is “hard to describe because you don’t feel it.” With no reference points, “you don’t know how fast you travel,” he told reporters.
“Sometimes we have to get really high to see how small we are,” he said.
The altitude he leapt from also marked the highest-ever for a skydiver — more than three times the height of the average cruising altitude for a jetliner. Organizers said the descent lasted just over nine minutes, about half of it in free fall. Utley said he travelled 119,846 feet (36,529 metres) in free fall.
Three hours earlier, Baumgartner, known as “Fearless Felix,” had taken off in a pressurized capsule carried by a 55-story ultra-thin helium balloon. After an at-times tense ascent, which included concerns about how well his facial shield was working, the 43-year-old former military parachutist completed a final safety check-list with mission control.
As he exited his capsule from high above Earth, he flashed a thumbs-up sign, well aware that the feat was being shown on a live-stream on the Internet with a 20-second delay.
Any contact with the capsule on his exit could have torn his pressurized suit, a rip that could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 57 degrees Celsius). That could have caused lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids.
But none of that happened. He activated his parachute as he neared Earth, gently gliding into the desert east of Roswell and landing without any apparent difficulty. The images triggered another loud cheer from onlookers at mission control, among them his mother, Eva Baumgartner, who was overcome with emotion, crying.
He then was taken by helicopter to meet fellow members of his team, whom he hugged in celebration.
Coincidentally, Baumgartner’s attempted feat also marked the 65th anniversary of U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager’s successful attempt to become the first man to officially break the sound barrier aboard an airplane.
At Baumgartner’s insistence, some 30 cameras on the capsule, the ground and a helicopter recorded the event Sunday. While it had been pegged as a live broadcast, organizers said was actually under a 20-second delay in case of a tragic accident.
Shortly after launch, screens at mission control showed the capsule as it began rising high above the New Mexico desert, with cheers erupting from organizers. Baumgartner could be seen on video, calmly checking instruments inside the capsule.
Baumgartner’s team included Joe Kittinger, who first attempted to break the sound barrier from 19.5 miles (31.4 kilometres) up in 1960, reaching a speed of 614 mph (988 kph), just under the sound barrier. With Kittinger inside mission control Sunday, the two men could be heard going over technical details during the ascension.
“Our guardian angel will take care of you,” Kittinger radioed to Baumgartner around the 100,000-foot (30,000-meter) mark. Kittinger noted that, it was getting “really serious” now.
An hour into the flight, Baumgartner had ascended more than 63,000 feet (19,200 metres) and had gone through a trial run of the jump sequence that will send him plummeting toward Earth. Ballast was dropped to speed up the ascent.
Kittinger told him, “Everything is in the green. Doing great.”
As Baumgartner ascended in the balloon, so did the number of viewers watching on YouTube. Nearly 7.3 million watched as he sat on the edge of the capsule moments before jumping. After he landed, Red Bull posted a picture of Baumgartner on his knees on the ground to Facebook, generating nearly 216,000 likes, 10,000 comments and more than 29,000 shares in less than 40 minutes.
On Twitter, half the worldwide trending topics had something to do with the jump, pushing past seven National Football League games.
Among the tweets was one from NASA: “Congratulations to Felix Baumgartner and RedBull Stratos on record-breaking leap from the edge of space!”
This attempt, sponsored by the energy drink maker Red Bull, marked the end of a five-year road for Baumgartner, a record-setting high-altitude jumper. He had already made two preparation jumps in the area, one from 15 miles (24 kilometres) high and another from 18 miles (29 kilometres) high. It will also be the end of his extreme altitude jumping career; he has promised this will be his final jump.
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.
Dr. Jonathan Clark, Baumgartner’s medical director, had told reporters he expected the pressurized spacesuit to protect him from the shock waves of breaking the sound barrier. A successful jump could lead NASA to certify a new generation of spacesuits for protecting astronauts and provide an escape option from spacecraft at 120,000 feet (36,000 metres), he said.