Record-smashing supersonic space jump will happen in 2012

Oh, you've been skydiving? That's nice. Extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner is underwhelmed by your "achievement."

What elevation did you jump from? 10,000 feet? 15,000? Later this year, Baumgartner plans to leap from near the edge of space itself, out of a balloon at an altitude of 120,000 feet.

Baumgartner is no stranger to record-setting stunts. In 2003, he was the first person in history to cross the English Channel in freefall. He also holds titles for record-breaking parachute jumps from some of the tallest man-made structures in the world, including Taiwan's landmark skyscraper, Taipei 101; and Rio de Jianero's Cristo Redentor statue. But none of the daredevil's previous feats can compare to his latest stunt, which will require him to ascend higher than four times the height of Mount Everest before "space-diving" back to Earth.

Record-smashing supersonic space jump will happen in 2012

If Baumgartner survives the descent, he stands to shatter no fewer than four extreme world records. The first three — highest skydive, highest manned balloon flight, and the longest free fall (of about five and a half minutes) — were set by U.S. air Force Captain Joe Kittinger [pictured here], who in 1960 leaped out of a balloon from an altitude of about 102,800 feet. But the fourth record is truly unprecedented: should he pull through, Baumgartner will become the first person in history to exceed supersonic speeds outside of an aircraft.

"In early aircraft development, they thought [exceeding the speed of sound] was a wall they couldn't pass without breaking apart," explained Art Thompson — the project's technical director — at a press briefing on Friday. "In our case, the vehicle is flesh and blood, and he'll be exposed to some extreme forces." Thompson continued:

If he opens up his face mask or the suit, all the gases in your body go out of suspension, so you literally turn into a giant fizzy, oozing fluid from your eyes and mouth, like something out of a horror film... It's just seconds until death.

Having said that, it sounds as though Baumgartner's fate is in good hands. He and Thompson are joined by a crew of accomplished scientific, engineering, and medical experts from establishments like Lockheed and NASA; and just as impressive as the jump itself is what this team — dubbed "Stratos" by its sponsor, Red Bull — hopes to accomplish scientifically.

"This mission is all about pioneer work," Baumgartner said in a statement released earlier today. "Maybe one day people will look back and say it was Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos team that helped to develop the suit that they're wearing in space. We want to do something for posterity."

"We'll be setting new standards for aviation," echoed Stratos medical director Jonathan Clark, a six-time crew surgeon to NASA's space shuttle program. He continues:

Never before has anyone gone supersonic without being in an aircraft. Red Bull Stratos is testing new equipment and developing the procedures for inhabiting such high altitudes as well as enduring such extreme acceleration. The aim is to improve the safety for space professionals as well as potential space tourists.

New Scientist Reports that the dive attempt is scheduled for sometime in 2012, and that the jump — from a planned altitude of 36.6 kilometres — will occur above Roswell, New Mexico.

[New Scientist | LiveScience]
Top image by Red Bull via; AF Captain Joseph Kittinger, Jr. via