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Air & Space

Felix Baumgartner prepares for daredevil freefall from 17 miles

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    July 23, 2012: Baumgartner of Austria prepares for the second manned test flight. ( Bull Content Pool)

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    June 21, 2012: Felix Baumgartner of Austria during the first high altitude test jumps in Taft, Calif. (Luke Aikins/Red Bull Content Pool)

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    July 21, 2012: Pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria sits inside the capsule prior to the second manned test flight for his Red Bull Stratos freefall from space in Roswell, N.M. ( Bull Content Pool)

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    July 23, 2012: Crew members cover the capsule to protect it from rain before the second manned test flight in Roswell, N.M. ( Bull Content Pool)

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    July 23 2012: Crew chief Ed Coca of the Unites States measures the wind ahead of a planned second manned test flight for Red Bull Stratos in Roswell, N.M. (Predrag Vuckovic/Red Bull Content Pool)

Daredevil adventurer Felix Baumgartner has spent years planning to make a 23-mile freefall plunge from the edge of space -- a jump that will take him to supersonic speeds. 

But before he does he’ll have to accomplish a far simpler task: a jump from a mere 17 miles up. 

If only the weather would cooperate. 

The final test jump from a balloon 90,000 feet over Roswell, N.M., is meant to verify equipment and procedures prior to the attempt for a record-setting leap from a balloon. The jump had been tentatively set for Mon., July 23, following a review of nine years of local weather data. But two days of storm clouds put it indefinitely on hold.

“Today was bad luck for all of us, we had this nice, dead calm that gave us a false reality. Literally as they pulled the tubes up to inflate the balloon the wind picked up,” said technical project director Art Thompson. “However, the team performed in an outstanding fashion. We’re going to make it happen.”

Two days of unexpected thunderstorm activity and increasing cloud cover made the launch too dangerous, forcing Baumgartner to postpone his test plunge until an unspecified time. According to the statement, the team promises "the test flight will re-commence at the earliest opportunity."

In compliance with U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the Red Bull Stratos team will not launch a manned balloon if skies are 5/10 (half) overcast or if the horizontal visibility at any point is less than 3 miles / 4.8 kilometers, according to a note on the site.

“We have a great team assembled,” said mission representative Joe Kittinger, himself a record-setting balloonist in addition to holding the freefall records that Baumgartner is trying to break.

'One mile every 5 seconds -- this is how fast you travel at supersonic speed.'

- Felix Baumgartner

“But the balloon is extremely fragile and we must have absolutely calm winds. It takes patience to get just the right weather conditions.” Team meteorologist Don Day added, “Ultimately, it came down to safety.”

The attempt to break the record of 102,800 feet for the highest altitude freefall set in 1960 will take place shortly after the completion of the final manned test jump. 

“One mile every 5 seconds -- this is how fast you travel at supersonic speed,” Baumgartner had explained earlier, somewhat astonished himself at that particular measurement of how quickly he will be falling from the heavens.

“It’s hard to believe it, if you put it that way, but I love it,” added the 43-year-old adventurer, who is looking forward to the historic jump that will also collect important data for the advancement of medical science. “Will I break the sound barrier this summer? We think it’s possible, and I’m putting everything into making it happen.”

With air temperatures of -70 degrees Fahrenheit, his very blood would boil if exposed to the air. To do it at all requires a custom supersonic spacesuit, designed by the David Clark Co., which made the first such pressurized suits to protect World War II fighters during high-speed maneuvers.

In the process of his leap, Baumgartner hopes to become the first parachutist to break the sound barrier, plummeting toward the ground at 760 mph. Other world records up for grabs: the highest manned balloon flight (120,000 feet); the highest skydive; and the longest freefall (about 5 minutes, 30 seconds).

Kittinger, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who holds several of the long-standing records that Baumgartner is determined to break, is delighted to be a mentor for his Austrian protégé.

“He’ll be making a significant contribution to future astronauts and future space travelers,” he said.