On 16 August 1960, US Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger made history by jumping out of a balloon at an altitude of some 31,333 metres. "I stood up and said a prayer and stepped off," he recalled (see Space diving: The ultimate extreme sport).
Since then, many have tried to break that record but none have succeeded – New Jersey native Nick Piantanida actually died trying in 1966. Now Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner has announced he will make the attempt, with help from Kittinger and sponsorship from the energy drink company Red Bull.
He will face extreme peril. He should reach supersonic speeds 35 seconds after he jumps, and the resulting shock wave "is a big concern", the project's technical director, Art Thompson, said at a press briefing on Friday. "In early aircraft development, they thought it was a wall they couldn't pass without breaking apart. In our case, the vehicle is flesh and blood, and he'll be exposed to some extreme forces.
"The jump height is above a threshold at 19,000 metres called the Armstrong line, where the atmospheric pressure is so low that fluids start to boil. "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," Thompson explained. "It's just seconds until death."
To protect himself, Baumgartner will wear a more flexible version of the airtight, pressurised spacesuit currently used aboard the space shuttle (see Future spacesuits to act like a second skin). That will let him bend to achieve the standard, belly-down skydiving position needed to decelerate.
Red Bull would not reveal the cost of the project. And though it says it will launch this year from North America, it has not yet specified a date or launch site. This uncertainty depends in part on finding the ideal weather conditions for the flight, Thompson said.
By showing that a person can safely return to Earth from that speed and altitude, the "Stratos" mission team hopes to show that astronauts might survive with similar systems if they needed to bail out of spacecraft.