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Faster than the Speed of Sound



FEATURE
Science




He is about as close as it gets for humans to being a batman or a superman.  He has jumped off the Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur and even flown across the English Channel, with the help of carbon fibre wings. Meet Fearless Felix – the Austrian sky-diver, who has just set a world record to become the first man to break the sound barrier.

As millions around the world experienced the view of the round blue earth surrounded by the black of space, captured from the Red Bull Stratos Mission’s capsule’s camera, Felix Baumartner, stepped off  into the void and plummeted for more than four minutes, reaching a maximum speed of 1.24 Mach or 1,342 kmph, before landing safely in the New Mexico desert, with the help of his parachute.
He broke altitude and speed records set half a century ago by Joe Kittinger, now 84, a retired Air Force colonel, who guided Felix through tense moments from the Roswell Mission Control room.  During the course of his historic jump, Felix was successful in setting three of the four new world records. 1. Reaching the maximum altitude of 39.04 kms,  2. Maximum speed of 1,342.8 kms per hour corresponding to Mach 1.24 and 3. Total free fall distance of 36,529 metres.  He did not break the record for longest duration free fall. His total free fall time was 4 minutes 20 seconds, which was 16 seconds short of the current world record held by his mentor Joe Kittinger.
“It was harder than I expected. Trust me, when you stand up there on top of the world, you become so humble. It’s not about breaking records any more. It’s not about getting scientific data. It’s all about coming home.” said Felix during his mission accomplished press conference.
Red Bull Stratos Mission

Salzburg born, 43 year old Felix Baumgartner was backed by a NASA style mission control operation called Red Bull Stratos. More than 300 people, including more than 70 engineers, scientists and physicians, worked at the Mission Control Room at Roswell, New Mexico. 

It was not a mere extreme adventure sport mission. Besides aiming at records, the engineers and scientists on the Red Bull Stratos team intended to gather data that would help future pilots, astronauts and space tourists survive if they have to bail-out. The mission was also intended to test new age space-suits, escape concepts and treatment protocols for pressure loss at very high altitudes.  On top of this, every one also wanted to know, what happens to the human body when it breaks the sound barrier?
The Mission to break the sound barrier was announced in January, 2010, with the help of a sponsorship from Red Bull – the energy drink company.  It was decided that Felix Baumgartner would jump off from 36,000 feet, intending to become the first parachutist to break the sound barrier. This would be possible because, while the normal speed of the free-falling sky-diver is about 320 kmph, the high altitude, with less dense atmosphere would boost speed.
The preparation period was grueling. While Felix had no trouble jumping off buildings and bridges, and soaring across the English Channel, he found himself suffering panic attacks when forced to spend hours inside the pressurized suit and helmet. At one point in 2010, rather than take an endurance test, Felix went to an airport and boarded a plane fleeing the United States. Later, with the help of a sports psychologist and other specialists, he learned techniques of dealing with the claustrophobia.
The Jump

Felix was originally scheduled to jump on the morning of October 9, 2012, but the mission got delayed because of bad weather. Technicians at the launch site also found that one of the capsule’s communication radios was faulty, forcing the launch to be rescheduled.

The mission was finally launched on Sunday  October 14, 2012 at  9.30 a.m. amidst clear weather and winds blowing at 5.5 kmph.  The ground temperature was 14 degree Celsius.   Felix Baumgartner’s specially designed capsule, attached to a helium balloon, took around 2.5 hours to ascend to the required height.

Things became difficult shortly after crossing the Armstrong Limit  and Felix’s visor developed a malfunction. Armstrong Limit is the altitude that produces an atmospheric pressure so low that water boils even at the normal temperature of the human body.   Beyond this limit, humans can not survive in an unpressurized environment.

One of the techniques Felix developed was to stay busy throughout the ascent. He conversed steadily with Mr. Kittinger at the Roswell Control room and went through a 40-item checklist mentally rehearsing every move that he would make when the time to leave the capsule came.
When the actual moment came, Mr. Kittinger said to Felix, “All right, step up on the exterior step. Start the cameras. And our guardian angel will take care of you now.” Divine words, indeed.
Felix stepped outside and delivered a message that was mostly garbled by radio static. Later, he repeated it: “I know the whole world is watching, and I wish the whole world could see what I see. Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are…. I am coming home now”
Baumgartner saluted and dived forward off the ledge at 12:08 local time. After 42 seconds of descent, Felix reached his maximum velocity of 1,342 kilometres per hour (834 mph).  Within two minutes, he lost control of his body and went into an uncontrolled spin.  Those were the anxious moments at the Control room as the spin, if not controlled soon, would have proved fatal, as blood would have gushed out of Felix’s eyes.
Thankfully, Felix was able to control his spin.  He had  an abort switch that would have allowed deployment of a  drogue parachute which would have arrested the spin but prevented him from breaking any speed records.
Felix couldn't say what it felt like to smash through the sound barrier. He said his pressurized space suit prevented him from experiencing the supersonic boom as he broke the sound barrier and accelerated through the heavens at 1,342 kmph.  11 minutes after jumping from the capsule, Baumgartner landed successfully on his feet in eastern New Mexico.

“He demonstrated that a man could survive in an extremely high altitude escape situation,” Mr. Kittinger said. “Future astronauts will wear the spacesuit that Felix test-jumped today.”
Reb Bull Stratos announced on its website “Mission Successful”.
(PIB Features.)

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