July 7, 2010
By Alton K. Marsh
Either Felix Baumgartner will break the sound barrier, or the sound barrier will break Felix Baumgartner. The outcome is not assured.
The Red Bull Stratos project aims to find out. According to Red Bull publicists, “sometime” in 2010 Baumgartner will step out of a capsule beneath a helium-filled balloon at 120,000 feet. According to unofficial sources, it will happen this summer above New Mexico.
Soon Baumgartner will try to break the sound barrier wearing a fully pressurized space suit. “We still have an unknown, which is what happens to my body when I break the speed of sound; but at least we’re going to know that I’m able to handle the step-off,” he said.
He’s practiced stepping off with the capsule suspended a few feet above the ground. If he stumbles, he won’t be able to achieve the streamlined position necessary to break the sound barrier. That, in turn, could lead to a flat spin when the air thickens. Testing proved the capsule remains stationary while he shuffles to the door and drops off, so that part is less of a worry.
He recently bungee jumped in the pressurized space suit—helmet by the David Clark Company—to practice controlling his forward rotation. He’s got that part down, too.
This past spring he made skydives from 26,000 feet in a fully pressurized suit and found that earlier problems with bulky equipment have been corrected. On earlier jumps the chest pack containing the technology for the jump jammed into his helmet, inhibited movement, and blocked his vision for the landing. All of that has been fixed.
There seems little left to do but jump. Once it’s over you’ll be able to see a full television program on the event on the BBC in Britain, and on the National Geographic Channel in the United States. That assumes the sound barrier question is answered successfully.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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