Felix Baumgartner: First person to break sound barrier in freefall

An unprecedented eight million people went onto YouTube on 14 October 2012 to witness the game-changing moment Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner completed a parachute jump from a height of 38,969.4 metres, smashing through eight world records and the sound barrier in the space of just three hours.

Back to Hall of Fame

Five years in scrupulous planning, the $20-million (£12.45-million) Red Bull Stratos project made history that day, signalling a huge leap forward in the world’s knowledge about the way the body copes with extreme conditions near space.

At 9:28 a.m. local time (3:28 p.m. GMT), Felix lifted off from Roswell, New Mexico, USA. Destination: the edge of space. Within the next few hours, Felix would be back on Earth having become the First human to break the sound barrier in freefall, completed the Highest freefall parachute jump (38,969.4 m / 127,852 ft) and achieved the Fastest speed in freefall (1,357.6 km/h / 843.6 mph).

Born to fly

Felix was born in 1969, but his journey truly began at the age of 16, when he completed his first ever skydive.

The thrill sucked him in and he continued to challenge himself with extreme parachuting. He soon took up BASE jumping, another seriously dangerous sport that involves parachuting or wingsuit flying from a fixed structure or cliff.

Felix went on to join the Austrian military, where he spent many years perfecting his parachute jumping and learned how to land on small target zones.

He later left the army and for a short while supported himself by repairing motorbikes.

But, Felix said, “The air is where I am at home.”

He has a tattoo on his forearm in Gothic font that says 'Born to fly'.

The Red Bull Stratos mission

Felix went to Red Bull before it came to him – he approached the energy drinks company and asked them to sponsor him to do a BASE jump from the 860-ft New River George Bridge in West Virginia, USA. They refused him, but a determined Felix went on to do the stunt regardless.

Thirty-two BASE jumps later, Red Bull agreed to sponsor him, kicking off his career as a showman for the company.

He mastered the BASE jump and found fame by expertly throwing himself off landmarks and the world’s tallest buildings in front of cameras. But: “I mean, how many highest buildings in the world do you want to do? The concept was always the same.”

Felix sought after even greater heights and resolved to break Joseph Kittinger’s (USA) 52-year-old record for the highest freefall parachute jump. With that, Red Bull and Baumgartner’s ultimate challenge was set in motion.

84-year-old Joseph aided Felix throughout the mission and was his main point of contact during the record-breaking jump.
It took years of unthinkably expensive research, development and testing with industry experts to perfect the equipment.
One of the most important factors for the jump was Felix’s pressure suit, because if this failed he would almost certainly die.
Felix hated the restrictive suit that was designed for him so much that a psychologist was brought in to help him come to terms with being inside it. 

By the time of the mission’s dramatic climax, however, every conceivable chance of a mistake or failure had been ironed out. 

Records broken

Largest balloon with a human on board

A giant balloon, as tall as the Statue of Liberty when fully inflated and with a capacity of approximately 850,000 m³ (30 million cu ft), carried Felix inside a capsule to an altitude of 38,969.4 m (127,852 ft).

The balloon had around 5,097 m³ (180,000 cu ft) of helium inserted by the crew prior to its launch. This was enough helium for lift off, but did not fill the balloon envelope to capacity because they needed to leave space to allow the helium to expand while the balloon rose.

As the air pressure decreased with the balloon's rising altitude, the helium inside it expanded, eventually filling the entire envelope to its full capacity of approximately 850,000 m³ (30 million ft³) at jump altitude.

The helium-filled balloon took Felix on his two-hour journey into the stratosphere.

The danger of the event was emphasised by the fact that the "live" broadcast had a built-in delay, allowing the public to be spared a gruesome spectacle in the event of tragedy.

After the long tension-building ascent, Felix could be heard running through the checklist with Col Kittinger and telling of the unexpected fogging of his visor. This issue was resolved quickly.

Felix Baumgartner

Highest altitude untethered outside a vehicle

After depressurising the capsule – the point of no return – Felix perched on its ledge for a few final moments before making his death-defying, multiple record-breaking leap to Earth.

"I'm going home now," he said.

He started 99,000 ft higher than Mount Everest and it took him just 9:09 minutes to get back to Earth.

First human to break the sound barrier in freefall

Once he had landed back on solid ground, Felix said:

"First we got off with a beautiful launch and then we had a bit of drama with a power supply issue to my visor. The exit was perfect but then I started spinning slowly. I thought I'd just spin a few times and that would be that, but then I started to speed up. It was really brutal at times. I thought for a few seconds that I'd lose consciousness. I didn't feel a sonic boom because I was so busy just trying to stabilize myself. We'll have to wait and see if we really broke the sound barrier. It was really a lot harder than I thought it was going to be."

The speed of sound is 1,236 km/h (768 mph). During his stratospheric skydive, Felix reached a top speed of 1,357.6 km/h (843.6 mph).

"It was an incredible up and down today, just like it's been with the whole project," said Baumgartner once he was safely back on Earth.

Most concurrent views for a live event on YouTube

Felix’s skydive not only set several high-altitude records, but also pushed the envelope for online video, with Felix and Red Bull breaking the records for the most concurrent views for a live event on YouTube and the largest audience for a livestream ad.

There were 15 cameras on Felix’s capsule with five attached to his suit, which provided an incredible viewing experience for those watching the broadcast.

A whopping eight million people watched Felix’s journey to space and descent back to Earth. The audience would have been even larger but demand out weighed YouTube’s server capabilities.

Aftermath

Following his amazing success, Felix’s name was added to Vienna’s Street of Champions alongside other Austrian and international sports champions in Vienna. He was also nominated for a World Sports Award and for two categories in the NEA Extreme Sports Awards. Felix says he is "officially retired from the daredevil business", and now puts his efforts into his helicopter and public service as a firefighter.

More than an impressive stunt, Felix’s skydive was a scientific challenge during which a lot of useful data was collected. His incredible achievement has led to significant advances in research into the stratosphere and space, as well as spacesuits and safety equipment.

On 24 October 2014, Google executive Alan Eustace (USA) fell to Earth from 41,422 metres (135,898 ft), and broke Felix’s record for the Highest freefall parachute jump.

Each year our knowledge of once unreachable places keeps on growing. There is no telling where we may go next.