The last time anyone parachuted from anywhere near this high, he called the setting "hostile ... absolutely black, void of anything."
Felix Baumgartner is planning to jump early Tuesday morning from the edge of space – 36 kilometres above Earth – and break the sound barrier as he plummets head-first for more than five minutes before opening his chute.
If the jump is successful, he will set four records, including breaking the 52-year-old mark for highest skydive. But much remains uncertain, including how his body will react to the supersonic descent and whether the New Mexico weather will allow his team to fill the giant balloon needed to lift him to more than three times the altitude of a jetliner.
Mr. Baumgartner has made a career out of such stunts. He set records for the highest and lowest BASE jumps, parachuting off the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lampur and from the Christ statue in Rio de Janiero. He parachuted onto a building in Sweden and then BASE jumped from it to the ground. In what many saw as his most dangerous adventure, he jumped into the darkness of a Croatian cave.
The team shut down media access in the week leading up to the attempt but, in a previous interview with The Globe and Mail, the Austrian daredevil discussed his drive. "You have to be the first one. The second one is the first loser," he said about his success crossing the English Channel wearing a carbon-fibre wing.
But the near-space attempt adds unique challenges. And he stresses that the jump is more than a stunt, calling it an opportunity to gather information that could improve safety systems for astronauts, pilots and possibly space tourists.
"Proving that a human can break the speed of sound in the stratosphere and return to Earth would be a step toward creating near-space bailout procedures that currently don't exist," Mr. Baumgartner said, according to a statement provided by his team.
"One of the unknowns is how a human body will react approaching supersonic speeds. The effects of the transition to supersonic velocity and back again are not known. This is just one of the things we hope to learn. Maybe one day it will be possible to bring astronauts home safely from space if their spacecraft malfunctions. It sounds like a sci-fi scenario, but aeronautics is definitely moving in that direction."
The Red Bull-sponsored jump is scheduled to be streamed on-line at http://www.redbullstratos.com/, with Tuesday's attempt set to begin at 8 a.m. EST.
The high-jump record Mr. Baumgartner is hoping to break was set in 1960 by U.S. Air Force Colonel Joeseph Kittinger. In the 1960s, amateur skydiver Nick Piantanida ran into repeat mishaps as he tried to break the record. His face mask blew out on his third attempt and he died after four months in a coma. More recently, French adventurer Michel Fournier tried to make a 2008 attempt in Saskatchewan but was stymied when his balloon floated away without him.
Although Mr. Baumgartner has made several thousand parachute jumps, this will be like no other.
He will be pulled slowly aloft in a capsule dangling from a vast balloon. Roughly 30 million cubic feet in volume, the balloon is the size of 340 Olympic-size swimming pools but with walls only one-tenth the thickness of a sandwich bag. The trip could take up to three hours and the balloon will go so high that his blood would bubble long before he reached jump altitude. To protect himself he must wear a specialized suit and helmet.
Controlling his body will be difficult in the initial phase of free-fall because the air is too thin to create resistance. But the flip side of that factor is that it will allow him to exceed the normal terminal velocity for skydivers.
The plan calls for Mr. Baumgartner to reach the speed of sound – falling about one kilometre every three seconds – less than a minute after leaving his capsule. He is then expected to free-fall another five minutes, with his speed gradually declining as the air becomes denser, before deploying his chute at about 5,000 feet. He will land 10 to 15 minutes after that.
In the lead-up to the jump he was said to be like a "tiger in a cage." And he offered a glimpse into his psyche.
"Having been involved in extreme endeavours for so long I've learned to use my fear to my advantage," Mr. Baumgartner explained. "Fear has become a friend of mine. It's what prevents me from stepping too far over the line."