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Austrian Pilot Hopes To Break Freefall Record

Audie Cornish talks to pilot Felix Baumgartner, who plans to freefall from 120,000 feet above the earth and break the speed of sound with his body. He will attempt to break a 50-year-old record held by retired Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger which is nearly 103,000 feet.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Speaking of jumps for the record books, how's this? A man who jumps from 23 miles above the Earth, trying to break the sound barrier, going more than 700 miles per hour with his body. Skydiver Felix Baumgartner wants to do just that. He's attempting a world record-breaking freefall this summer from a capsule attached to a helium balloon. Baumgartner will jump from way up in the stratosphere, 120,000 feet above Roswell, New Mexico. He explained his plan to me today.

FELIX BAUMGARTNER: I show up at 2 o'clock in the morning, so the first thing that we're going to do is a medical check. Then I'm getting dressed up. My suit guy, he's dressing me up, which is a really serious moment because my suit is the only thing that protects me as soon as I leave my space capsule. Then I have to breathe pure - 100 percent oxygen to get rid of all the nitrogen bubbles in my blood system. If the balloon is ready to launch, I'm getting into the capsule itself, then it takes another two hours and a half until I reach altitude.

I depressurize the capsule. Then your suit will getting pressurized at the same moment to make up for that pressure loss because you need the pressure suit up at 120,000 feet; otherwise, your blood will start to boil. And then I'm breathing oxygen out of my backpack system. That system only provides oxygen for 10 minutes, so there's not too much time to enjoy the view and get that feeling of this is the highest jump in the world.

CORNISH: Now, you've already done a trip from what distance? Was it...

BAUMGARTNER: Seventy-two thousand a couple of months ago.

CORNISH: Seventy-two thousand feet. So how is that different from just a skydive? I mean, what's that feeling?

BAUMGARTNER: The big difference is the altitude, of course. You know, the sky is totally black. And in freefall, you don't really realize how fast you are. I was flying at 380 miles an hour, but you don't have any sensational speed at all because you don't have reference points. Nothing is passing by. You don't have noise at that altitude. So it pretty much feels like a normal skydive, which is the sad part of it.

CORNISH: Oh, really?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAUMGARTNER: Yes. I mean, you're so fast, but you don't feel it.

CORNISH: Is there any speculation out there about the concerns for the human body going faster than the speed of sound?

BAUMGARTNER: Well, mostly, the scientists, they think you cannot maintain your normal freefall position, so it would start flat-spinning. And if that occurs and it's faster than 150 RPM, there's only one way for your blood to leave your body, and that's through your eyeballs.

CORNISH: Yikes.

BAUMGARTNER: Yeah. So this is something that we have to make sure it's not going to happen. It's also the reason why we've developed a lot of safety equipment over the last couple of years.

CORNISH: You've done a lot of jumps from a lot of high places prior to this point. Were you a kid who was always climbing stuff or - what? You like - where does this instinct...

BAUMGARTNER: Oh, yeah.

CORNISH: ...come from to like throw yourself off of buildings and in this case off of, you know, a space capsule or edge of space capsule?

BAUMGARTNER: When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time on trees. I always wanted to see the world from above. And I always wanted to fly, so the easiest and cheapest way to fly is becoming a skydiver. So I had to wait because in Austria, you have to be 16 years old until you can get your own skydiving license so...

CORNISH: And you can also fly like be a pilot in a plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAUMGARTNER: But not at a very early age.

CORNISH: Oh, right. OK.

BAUMGARTNER: Yeah. So skydiving was my first introduction to the world of flying, and I loved it so much. Later on, I was at the Austrian military as a military skydiver. And then I started working as a base jumper because I felt this is total freedom. You don't need an airplane anymore or a helicopter. You can - you just get off from a building or a cliff. So that - it was very satisfying to me. And I was traveling around the world doing all these famous objects. I base jumped off the Jesus statue in Rio de Janeiro.

I base jumped off one of the highest buildings in the world. I was crossing the English Channel with a carbon-fiber wing on my back. So I did all these things, but at a certain time, I felt this is not challenging anymore. I mean, if - I'm not a thrill seeker. I'm more a competitive person. I love the challenge. And to me, there's nothing more challenging than stepping out of a space capsule from 120,000 feet and breaking the speed of sound.

CORNISH: All right. Felix, well, thank you so much for talking with us.

BAUMGARTNER: Thanks for having me here.

CORNISH: Skydiver Felix Baumgartner training to attempt the record highest freefall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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