Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner lifted off from the New Mexico desert on Sunday in his second attempt to make a record-breaking jump from the edge of space.
Baumgartner was being transported up to 23 miles (37 kilometers) above the Earth by an enormous balloon, before launching himself into the void, aiming to become the first human to break the sound barrier in freefall.
The capsule rose into the clear blue sky, with organizers holding their breath for the first few thousand feet of ascent, as Baumgartner would not have had enough time to escape had there been a problem.
Some 20 minutes into flight the balloon -- whose progress was streamed live by cameras on the ground and around the capsule itself -- was rising at over 1,000 feet per minute, according to mission control.
Baumgartner’s 100-strong backup team includes retired U.S. Air Force colonel Joe Kittinger, who holds one of the records he is trying to break: the highest freefall jump, which he made from 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) in 1960.
Kittinger could be heard talking by radio with Baumgartner, telling him his ascending speed and all other parameters were perfect. ‘You’re right on the button, Felix,” he said.
“Roger Roger Roger, Jawohl,” he said, using military communications jargon and the Austrian’s native tongue, while mission controller Mike Jacobs said “All systems are green and go.”
The balloon was expected to reach jump height in about two hours, Jacobs added. If all goes well, the descent was to take about 15 to 20 minutes -- five minutes or so in freefall, and 10 to 15 floating down with his parachute.
It was the second effort by the 43-year-old skydiver, following an initial bid last week that was aborted at the last minute due to winds.
The giant balloon -- which holds 30 million cubic feet of helium -- is needed to carry the Red Bull Stratos capsule, which weighs nearly 1.3 tons, to the stratosphere.
It is made of near transparent polyethylene strips about the same thickness as a dry cleaner bag, which are heat-sealed together. Very thin material is necessary to save weight.
The biggest risk Baumgartner faces is spinning out of control, which could exert G forces and make him lose consciousness. A controlled dive from the capsule is essential, putting him in a head-down position to increase speed.
More worrying is the prospect that the skydiver’s blood could boil if there were the slightest tear or crack in his pressurized spacesuit-like outfit, due to instant depressurization at extreme altitude.
Temperatures of 90 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 68 Celsius) could also have unpredictable consequences if his suit somehow fails.
The entire attempt was being beamed live by broadcasters around the world, and online -- although with a 20-second delay in case something goes wrong, so that organizers can cut the feed.
“If there is a mishap, Mission Control is on it and would absolutely cut the feed,” spokeswoman Sarah Anderson told AFP.
Baumgartner aims to break at least three records: the highest freefall leap, the fastest speed ever achieved by a human, and the first person to break the sound barrier of around 690 miles (1,110 kilometers) per hour in freefall.
The Austrian has been training for five years for the jump. He holds several previous records, notably with spectacular base jumps from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Speaking before the launch, Baumgartner said he would be proud to be the first person to break the speed of sound in freefall.
“But really, I know that part of this entire experience will help make the next pressure suit safer for space tourists and aviators,” the jumper pointed out.
Sunday’s launch coincides with the 65th anniversary of American pilot Chuck Yaeger breaking the speed of sound.
The jump has launched today at 09:19 KSA and was exclusively broadcasted on MBC ACTION; the only TV channel in the Middle East and North Africa region (and one of four channels in the world) to have been granted the rights to a live feed.
The stunt, called the Red Bull stratos mission, had been cancelled twice in recent weeks due to bad weather.