After an ascent lasting nearly three hours and a preparation process lasting more than two years, Austrian pilot Felix Baumgartner was surely ready to get the Red Bull Stratos mission over with. The scientific research behind the attempt — as well as the four records he was poised to shatter — were well publicized, though they were likely miles from his mind as he teetered on the ledge of his capsule 128,000 feet above the New Mexico terrain Sunday.
“Trust me, when you stand up there on top of the world, you become so humble. It’s not about breaking records any more. It’s not about getting scientific data. It’s all about coming home,” he said of his pre-jump thoughts at a press conference after his successful – and suave – landing.
Of the four records he was aiming to break with his 9 minute, 3 second descent, one had already been busted even before he stepped out of his capsule. At a maximum height of 128,097 feet above sea level, Baumgartner surpassed the record for highest manned balloon flight set in 1961 by U.S. Navy balloonists Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather, who floated up to 113,740 feet.
Baumgartner was also chasing the record for highest freefall distance, which could be measured from his initial jump point, at 128,097 feet, to the moment he opened his ripcord — at 8251 feet above sea level. The total free fall distance — 119,846 feet — eclipsed the previous record of 102,800 feet by more than three miles.
That earlier record was set in 1960 by U.S. Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger, who was, incidentally, the man on the other end of Baumgartner’s microphone at Mission Control in Roswell, N.M. The 84-year-old retired colonel served as Baumgartner’s mentor throughout the preparation process and his adviser throughout the flight.
Baumgartner’s biggest record? He sought to be the first free-falling human to break the sound barrier, which he did handily. His top speed was calculated at 833.9 miles per hour, or Mach 1.24. (The speed of sound is measured at 761.2 miles per hour at sea level.) Kittinger’s 1960 flight failed to break this record: he reached a maximum of 614 miles per hour, or Mach 0.9.
But Kittinger still retains one record after 52 years. Baumgartner failed to best his mentor in the longest freefall duration. On Sunday, the 43-year-old former paratrooper fell for 4 minutes and 20 seconds before pulling his parachute — more than a minute short of the 5 minutes, 35 seconds that mission planners had anticipated. He was just 16 seconds shy of Kittinger’s 1960 record of 4 minutes, 36 seconds.
It’s thought that Baumgartner fell at a faster rate than expected, leading him to pull his parachute quicker than he anticipated. Or perhaps there were technical issues: on the ascent, he expressed to the ground crew that he was having difficulty with the heater in his helmet and was thus unable to clear the fog from his visor. Some speculated that this problem was exacerbated during the fall, and Baumgartner couldn’t gauge how close he was to the ground, leading him to trigger the chute.
It’s possible Baumgartner could have fallen for another 20 seconds — clinching the record — and still have been able to pull his parachute in time for a smooth landing. But during a mission with so much uncertainty, a margin of safety is nothing to balk at. He then floated to the ground, landing 4 minutes, 43 seconds later.
A fifth record, though rather minor in comparison, still remains unproven: Baumgartner’s jump platform is thought to be the largest manned balloon in history. Baumgartner’s massive helium balloon stretched more than 550 feet high and expanded to more than 30 million cubic feet to carry Baumgartner 24 miles up.
All records are still awaiting confirmation from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world governing body for aeronautic records, although the results aren’t expected to change. That’s because Brian Utley, an auditor from the FAI, was on hand to reveal the preliminary totals gathered from the GPS and measurement devices Baumgartner used during his freefall.
Baumgartner says won’t be attempting to break any more records in the near future after the stress of this one. He plans to settle down with his girlfriend, and will restrict his high-flying endeavors to helicopter rescue missions in the U.S. and Austria. And some day, he said at the post-dive press conference, he’d like to be sitting in Kittinger’s chair: “I would love if there was a young guy sitting next to me asking what my advice is, wanting to break my record.”