By Jonathan Amos Science correspondent
Highlights from Felix Baumgartner’s leap into the record books
Austrian Felix Baumgartner has broken the record for the highest ever skydive by jumping out of a balloon 128,000ft (24 miles, 39km) above New Mexico.
The 43-year-old was hoping also to break the sound barrier during his descent – although that mark awaits confirmation.
Video cameras relayed the moment Baumgartner stepped from his balloon capsule to begin his fall to Earth.
It took just under 10 minutes for him to reach the desert surface below.
Only the last few thousand feet were negotiated by parachute. Once down, he fell to his knees and raised his fists in triumph. Helicopter recovery teams were on hand moments later.
None of the new marks set by Baumgartner can be classed as «official» until endorsed by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI).
Its representative was the first to greet the skydiver on the ground. GPS data recorded on to a microcard in the Austrian’s chest pack will form the basis for any height and speed claims that are made.
Unofficially, the Austrian jumped from 128,097ft (24.2 miles; 39km). He fell for four minutes and 19 seconds, reaching a speed of 706mph (1,137km/h). These figures will undoubtedly change slightly once the chest pack information has been properly assessed.
There was concern early in the dive that he was in trouble. Baumgartner was supposed to get himself into a delta position – head down, arms back – as soon as possible after leaving his capsule. But the video showed him tumbling over and over.
Eventually, however, he was able to use his great experience, from more than 2,500 career skydives – to correct his fall and get into a stable configuration.
Even before this drama, it was thought the mission might have to be aborted. As he went through last-minute checks inside the capsule, it was found that that a heater for his visor was not working. This meant the visor fogged up as he exhaled.
«This is very serious, Joe,» he told retired US Air Force Col Joe Kittinger, whose records he was attempting to break, and who was acting as his radio link to mission control at Roswell airport.
Not official yet
Baumgartner’s efforts have finally toppled records that have stood for more than 50 years.
The previous highest, farthest, and longest freefall was made by Col Kittinger, who leapt from a helium envelope in 1960. His altitude was 102,800ft (31.3km).
Col Kittinger, now an octogenarian, has been an integral part of Baumgartner’s team, and has provided the Austrian with advice and encouragement whenever he has doubted his ability to complete such a daring venture.
The adventurer – perhaps best known for leaping off skyscrapers – first discussed the possibility of beating Mr Kittinger’s records in 2005.
Since then, he has had to battle technical and budgetary challenges to make it happen.
What he was proposing was extremely dangerous, even for a man used to those skyscraper stunts.
At an altitude of 120,000ft (36.5km), the air pressure is less than 2% of what it is at sea level, and it is impossible to breathe without an oxygen supply.
Others who have tried to break the records for the highest, fastest and longest freefalls have lost their lives in the process.
Baumgartner’s team built him a special pressurised capsule to protect him on the way up, and for his descent he wore a next generation, full pressure suit made by the same company that prepares the flight suits of astronauts.
Although the jump had the appearance of another Baumgartner stunt, his team stressed its high scientific relevance.
The researchers on the Red Bull Stratos project say it has already provided invaluable data for the development of high-performance, high-altitude parachute systems, and that the lessons learned will inform the development of new ideas for emergency evacuation from vehicles, such as spacecraft, passing through the stratosphere.
Nasa and its spacecraft manufacturers have asked to be kept informed.
Jon Clark is the medical director on the team. The former shuttle flight surgeon lost his wife in the Columbia accident in 2003.
He said Baumgartner’s experience could help save the lives of future astronauts who get into trouble.
A BBC/National Geographic documentary is being made about the project and will probably be aired in November.