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October 9, 2012

Skydiver cancels try at supersonic jump

ROSWELL, N.M. — Extreme athlete and skydiver Felix Baumgartner canceled his planned death-defying 23-mile free fall today into the New Mexico desert because of high winds.

The 43-year-old former military parachutist from Austria had hoped to become the first skydiver to break the sound barrier and shatter three other world records.

But the weather forced his team to cancel his planned ascent in a 55-story, ultra-thin helium balloon that was to take him to the stratosphere.

Because the balloon is so delicate, it could only take flight if winds were 2 mph or below.

Those plans were in question before sunrise, when winds at 700 feet above ground — the top of the balloon — were 20 mph, far above the 3 mph maximum for a safe launch, mission meteorologist Don Day said.

With winds calming, they began the launch process, with Baumgartner suiting up and entering the capsule. During the inflation, an live online feed showed winds whipping the balloon around.

The balloon had been scheduled to launch about 7 a.m. from a field near the airport in a flat dusty town that until now has been best known for a rumored 1947 UFO landing.

Baumgartner was to make a nearly three-hour ascent to 120,000 feet, then take a bunny-style hop from a pressurized capsule into a near-vacuum where there is barely any oxygen to begin what was expected to be the fastest, farthest free fall from the highest-ever manned balloon. The energy drink maker Red Bull was sponsoring the feat.

Baumgartner spent Monday at his hotel, mentally preparing for the dangerous feat with his parents, girlfriend and a few close friends, his team said. He spent this morning resting in an Airstream trailer near the launch site.

Among the risks: Any contact with the capsule on his exit could have torn the pressurized suit. A rip could have exposed him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as 70 degrees below zero. It could have caused potentially lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids, a condition known as “boiling blood.”

He could also have spun out of control, causing other risky problems.

And while Baumgartner had hopes to set four new world records when he jumps, his free fall would have been more than just a stunt.

His dive from the stratosphere would have provided scientists with valuable information for next-generation spacesuits and techniques that could help astronauts survive accidents.

Jumping from more than three times the height of the average cruising altitude for jetliners, Baumgartner expected to hit a speed of 690 mph or more before he activated his parachute at 9,500 feet above sea level, or about 5,000 above the ground in southeastern New Mexico. The total jump was expected to take about 10 minutes.

His medical director is Dr. Jonathan Clark, a NASA space shuttle crew surgeon who lost his wife, Laurel Clark, in the 2003 Columbia accident. No one knows what happens to a body when it breaks the sound barrier, said Clark, who is dedicated to improving astronauts’ chances of survival in a high-altitude disaster.

Clark told reporters Monday he expected Baumgartner’s pressurized spacesuit to protect him from the shock waves of breaking the sound barrier. If he survives the jump, Clark said Monday, NASA could certify a new generation of spacesuits for protecting astronauts and provide an escape option from spacecraft at 120,000 feet.

Currently, spacesuits are certified to protect astronauts to 100,000 feet, the level former Air Force Capt. Joe Kittinger reached in his 1960 free-fall record from 19.5 miles.

Kittinger’s speed of 614 mph was just shy of breaking the sound barrier at that altitude.

Follow Jeri Clausing at http://twitter.com/jericlausing.

 

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