I watched the record-breaking jump of Felix Baumgartner from 128,000 feet Sunday on the Velocity channel. Eight million other Americans also watched, many on YouTube. At first, it was just very interesting until he finally reached “float level” around 128,000 feet where the ballon stopped rising. At that point he was on the edge of space. Then it got emotional. You may have had the same experience if you watched it.
The reassuring voice from central control in constant contact with Felix was 84-year old Joe Kittinger who until Sunday held the record for the highest jump ever, 90,000 feet in 1960. Joe took Felix through a 40-point checklist that was prelude to getting him out of the capsule on onto the jump platform. When he finally stood on the jump platform and went through the final check list items, I heard him say something that was garbled by radio static. Later I learned that he said this: “I know the whole world is watching, and I wish the whole world could see what I see. Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.”
At several points during the final check Joe Kittinger would say, “That’s good Felix, our guardian angel will take care of you now.”
The numerous cameras inside and outside the capsule were marvelous and allowed I and 8 million other people to see everything that was going on. It took the balloon over 2 hours to reach its float height of a little over 128,000 feet. Felix has had issues in the past from spending that long in the confines of a space suit inside a small capsule, and has found that staying as busy as possible works to alleviate his claustrophobia. The video cameras showed him always doing something. His jump suit is a space suit that allows him to breathe once the pressure in the capsule is reduced to near zero to match the ambient pressure at 128,000 feet. Until that time the suit is not pressurized. One of the checks that he performs before jumping is to depressurize the capsule. As the capsule pressure falls to near zero, a process that takes several minutes, the space suit automatically pressurizes. Another one of the checks is to verify that this is taking place.
The ambient air temperature at that height is not as cold as it is at lower altitudes where it can be 50 degrees below. The temp at 128,000 is actually slightly above zero. But of course, Felix was going to be falling through that deep freeze on the way down.
The goal of the jump was not only to set a new altitude record but also to see if the human body can survive breaking the sound barrier. Felix accomplished both goals. His speed in the fall reached 834 miles per hour, 1.24 mach. Of course, once he re-entered the atmosphere his fall slowed considerably.
Joe Kittinger was nearly killed in 1960 when he jumped from 90,000 feet. His body went into a spin in the thin atmosphere. The danger of a violent spin is that the centrifugal force can take all of the blood away from the body’s central organs. Ultimately, if the spin is wild enough, and especially if it is a flat spin, it can force the blood out of the body and the path of least resistance is through the eyeballs. At that point you’re dead.
The cameras on the ground were so good viewers were able to watch Felix as he fell. Not too long after he jumped his body went into a head over heels spin. My heart sank, I thought I was watching a man being killed. Until he reached a lower level where the air was thicker he was unable to take any corrective action to stop the spin. The head over heels spin can be bad, but it is the flat spin where the body is positioned flat to the earth and spinning that is most likely to be fatal. Even so, I worried I was going to see a parachute landing of a bloody glob of protoplasm inside a space suit. Happily, the violent spinning lasted less than a minute, Felix remained conscious throughout, and as soon as he got into the atmosphere he was able to stop the spin. I’ll won’t easily forget the horror of seeing that space suit spinning wildly like a child’s propeller stick in a strong wind.
Here is the video from Felix’s helmet cam which shows the spin. It’s from Austrian television and the discussion is in German. I believe English speakers will be surprised at how much you might understand of the German if you listen carefully. They are talking about the spin and Felix’s efforts to control it:
From the time the parachute opened at about 5,000 feet above the ground everything was picture perfect. He landed easily, even staying on his feet. He then dropped to his knees and raised both thumbs into the air. His mother and other family members were shown on camera several times with tears of both joy and apprehensive sorrow. It was a stunning moment. I had to wipe my eyes a few times as well.
The first danger Felix Baumgartner faced was the initial lift off from the ground. Until the balloon reaches about 4,000 feet above the ground there is no way to survive something going wrong. If the balloon had stopped rising or started to fall Felix would not have been high enough to have done a successful jump.
The remarkable thing about this feat, besides the incredible courage of Felix Baumgartner, is that the whole thing was done with private sector funding and was not a government operation. Red Bull paid for it.