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Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner celebrated his unprecedented feat yesterday after becoming the first man to break the sound barrier in a record-shattering, death-defying freefall jump from the edge of space. The 43-year-old leapt from a capsule more than 24 miles (39km) above the Earth Sunday, reaching a top speed of 833.9 miles (1,342km) per hour, or 1.24 times the speed of sound, according to organisers.
The veteran skydiver was in freefall for four minutes and 20 seconds before opening his red and white parachute and floating down to the desert in the US state of New Mexico, said Red Bull Stratos mission record keeper Brian Utley. Mission control erupted in cheers as Baumgartner sprung from the capsule hoisted aloft by a giant helium-filled balloon to an altitude of 128,097 feet (39,044 metres), even higher than expected.
“I think 20 tonnes have fallen from my shoulders. I prepared for this for seven years,” he told German-language ServusTV in Austria in his first interview after the leap.
Referring to a helmet problem that nearly forced him to abort at the last minute, Baumgartner said: “Even on a day like this when you start so well, then there’s a little glitch. But I finally decided to jump. “It was the right decision,” added the Austrian, who broke three records: the highest freefall jump, the fastest freefall speed and the highest balloon flight by a human. He failed to make the longest freefall jump.
Shortly before leaping, in footage beamed live around the world on a crackly radio link recalling Neil Armstrong’s first words on the Moon, he had said: “Sometimes you have (to go) up really high to (understand) how small you are.”
After a perfect start, anxious viewers around the world looked on in agony as the Austrian started tumbling chaotically for what seemed like an eternity before finally achieving the correct position.
“The exit was perfect, then I started tumbling -- I thought I’d get it under control, but then it really started. I really picked up speed, it got very violent. I thought for a few seconds I’ll fall unconscious.”
“Thank goodness, I managed to stop -- it was very difficult. It was much more difficult than many of us expected.”
Baumgartner said he wasn’t even aware of breaking the sound barrier.
“I didn’t feel the sonic boom, I think it happens behind you,” he said.
The Austrian took more than two hours to get up to the jump altitude. Baumgartner had already broken one record before he even leapt: the previous highest altitude for a manned balloon flight was 113,740 feet, set in 1961.
He had been due to jump from 120,000 feet, but the balloon went higher than expected.
Former Nasa Astronaut Leroy Chiao, speaking on CNN television, said he believed elements of the pressure suit used by Baumgartner would be “incorporated into future pressure suits that are used in spacecraft.”
The biggest risk Baumgartner faced was spinning out of control, which could have exerted excessive g-force and made him lose consciousness.
Temperatures of 90 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 68 Celsius) could also have had unpredictable consequences if his suit somehow failed.
The helmet problem as Baumgartner ascended added to the sense of alarm: the heater failed on his faceplate, meaning it became fogged up when he exhaled.
After considering the options, the nerveless Baumgartner and his entourage decided to go ahead with the jump.