Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic skydive from 23 miles up is many things: an attempt to set a record and, yes, an opportunity to sell a lot of Red Bull, but also a chance to learn more about free falling from extreme altitude — lessons that could be valuable as commercial space flight takes off.
Early Tuesday morning, the Austrian adventurer will don a custom-made spacesuit and ascend high over the New Mexico desert in a capsule suspended beneath an immense helium balloon, then fall to earth from 120,000 feet. His primary goal is breaking an unofficial record Col. Joe Kittinger set with a similar leap from 102,800 feet in 1960. But, like Kittinger, Baumgartner also hopes to add to our understanding of the frontiers of flight.
Baumgartner expects to exceed the speed of sound – about 700 mph at that altitude – during a free fall that will last about five minutes, something no one has ever done. For all our knowledge about high-altitude flight and space travel, there’s still a lot we don’t know about what would happen if a pilot aborts a mission and ejects at the edge of the atmosphere. The air is so thin at such heights that it is easy to tumble out of control, a situation that can lead to unconsciousness and even death.