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Felix Baumgartner sets high altitude skydiving and free fall records

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Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old Austrian skydiver and member of the Red Bull Stratos project, jumped from a capsule suspended from a 55-story helium balloon on the edge of the stratosphere, at an altitude of 128,100 feet or 24.261 miles, 40 miles east of Roswell, N.M. on Sunday, October 14, 2012 at 12:08 p.m. MDT.

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According to media reports published by The New York Times, BBC News, Chicago Sun-Times, and other global sources, Baumgartner landed on his feet in the sandy New Mexican scrub grass about 11 minutes later.

Pending verification by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), an air sports governing agency based in Lausanne, Switzerland, preliminary data showed that the jump had set three new world records, including (1) maximum altitude of 24.261 miles; (2) maximum free fall speed of 834.4 miles an hour, or Mach 1.24, breaking the sound barrier assisted only by gravity; and (3) total free fall distance of 119,846 feet.

One record that the Austrian jumper did not shatter was the free fall time set by his coach and mentor, 84-year-old retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger. On August 16, 1960, more than 52 years ago, as part of Project Excelsior, then 32-year-old Col. Kittinger jumped from a helium balloon suspended capsule at a height of 102,800 feet, and was in free fall for 4 minutes and 36 seconds before he opened his parachute.

While Baumgartner fell higher, further, and faster, his free fall time was shorter by some 17 seconds, for a total time of 4 minutes and 19 seconds, deploying his parachute at an altitude of approximately 8,200 feet. The Austrian could have continued to fall safely for another 20 seconds before releasing his chute, but it was difficult for him to verify his exact altitude due to the fogging of his helmet visor.

However, another milestone was set. More than 8 million viewers watched the full dramatic jump on YouTube, setting a record for "live stream with the most concurrent views ever on YouTube."

While the actual data awaits verification, Baumgartner was elated by his accomplishment. Real time data shows that he broke the sound barrier during the free fall part of his plunge back to earth. Nevertheless, he remained humble throughout the whole process.

Standing on the suspended platform prior to his record shattering feat, he said, "I know the whole world is watching now. I wish you could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to be up really high to understand how small you are. I'm coming home now."

It was another memorable moment in the annals of aviation history. Exactly 65 years ago, on October 14, 1947, test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first person to officially break the sound barrier in an experimental X-1 jet at an altitude of 45,000 feet. Yeager concealed the fact that he had broken two ribs in a horseback riding accident just days before his scheduled record flight.

On the same day that Baumgartner made his leap into aviation history, retired U.S. Air Force General Chuck Yaeger flew in the back seat of a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle as it broke the sound barrier, some 30,000 feet above California's Mojave Desert, commemorating his earlier record-breaking flight.

It is likely that someone else will someday push the envelope further and break Felix Baumgartner's records. That is the nature of human striving. Sunday's high altitude jump has also given NASA new information on improving pressure suits for future space exploration.

Baumgartner plans to stay closer to the ground while continuing his love of aviation. He hopes to fly helicopters on mountain rescue and fire fighting missions in the U.S. and Austria.

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