Daredevil freefall breaks the sound barrier

From a capsule in the stratosphere, Felix Baumgartner contemplates a test fall © Getty Images

When Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space, the world looked on in awe. His supersonic leap, which broke world records, is a feat of technology and training.

Perched in the open door of a capsule, Felix Baumgartner looked down. Below him, the curve of the Earth was clearly visible, a dark expanse edged by bright light. Outside, the air was nearly a vacuum. He hung 24 miles above the Earth, and the only way was down.

As millions watched, Baumgartner threw himself into the abyss, his body shrinking to a dot and disappearing in seconds. As he fell, he accelerated: five, six, seven hundred miles per hour, breaking the sound barrier before he released his parachute and drifted to the ground.

With a peak speed of 720 miles per hour, Baumgartner has set new world records for the highest and fastest freefall. For five years, a team of 300 prepared for Sunday’s feat, using mind-boggling technology: the balloon that lifted Felix four times higher than an average passenger jet was 55 stories high, but only one tenth of the thickness of a sandwich bag.

Joe Kittinger, who set the previous records in 1960, prepared Felix for the very real risks of the jump. At 24 miles, the temperature is minus sixty degrees, with air so thin that bubbles can form in bodily fluid, literally boiling the blood. To survive, Felix depended on a hi-tech suit, which could help astronauts of the future.

The daredevil was also flung into a violent and potentially deadly spin during his fall, but used his experience to regain control of his movements. Now 42, Baumgartner completed his first skydive at sixteen and worked as a military parachutist. But he rose to renown in BASE jumping – one of the world’s most dangerous sports.

Rather than jumping from thousands of metres up, BASE jumpers leap off buildings, bridges or cliffs, and have just seconds to open their parachutes. One of Baumgartner’s first records was jumping from the hand of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the world’s shortest BASE jump at just 29m.

On Sunday, Felix was at the ‘top of the world’ rather than dangerously close to the ground. But he did not think about breaking records – only ‘coming back alive’. Sometimes, he said, ‘you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are’.

Stratospheric success

For many watching, this rang true. Today, some say, people can climb Everest or sail to Antarctica while barely risking danger, and few real adventures exist. By risking death at the edge of space Felix demonstrated both what people can achieve and their fragility. His stunt is rare and profound.

Not everyone, however, is so impressed. Mountains of work and money may be behind Felix’s stunt, they say, but the leap still looks like an elaborate viral video, a few minutes of shock. Falling a long way, they say, is not a great achievement at all.

You Decide

  1. Why should we be impressed by Baumgartner’s achievement?
  2. Is there a lack of real, dangerous challenges remaining in the world?

Activities

  1. Imagine an interview with Baumgartner, after he completed his freefall.
  2. In groups, discuss what Baumgartner’s next record-breaking, death-defying stunt might be.

Some People Say...

“Extreme sports are for meatheads.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So, what’s the point in all this anyway?
Many in Baumgartner’s team cite the scientific research that his dive will contribute to. The technology used in the suit he wears, they say, could help save the lives of astronauts forced to eject from their spacecraft.
Still not very relevant to me.
Okay, only one or two people will jump out of space. But extreme sports like BASE jumping are becoming more popular.
BASE jumping is pretty cool.
But it’s serious business too. BASE jumpers generally have a couple of hundred skydives under their belt before throwing themselves off buildings, and most have an experienced mentor to guide them through their first jumps. Even so, nearly 200 people have been killed while doing the daredevil sport.

Word Watch

Vacuum
In a vacuum there is no oxygen. At 24 miles up, the percentage of oxygen in the air is tiny, and Baumgartner had to be supplied with oxygen for the entirety of his jump.
Sound barrier
The sound barrier is ‘broken’ when an object reaches a speed higher than 690 mph – known as Mach 1. People have broken the sound barrier before, though not always intentionally. In 1966, for example, a US test pilot was ejected from a damaged plane and reached Mach 3.18 – three times the speed of sound – and survived.
Astronauts of the future
Baumgartner’s suit consists of four layers, each of which played a special role in protecting him against the freezing, low-pressure and low-oxygen conditions of the stratosphere. The technology used in it could be helpful to astronauts who are forced to eject at very high altitudes (during take-off, for example).
BASE jumping
BASE stands for the four points jumpers can leap from in this sport: buildings, aerials, spans (like bridges), and earth (meaning cliffs and mountains). Once someone has jumped of all four of these bases, they are officially a BASE jumper, and are allocated a particular number. Baumgartner’s is 502.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.