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Daredevil’s jump from space offers more than entertainment

This photo provided by Red Bull Stratos shows pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria reacting after his mission was aborted in Roswell, N.M., Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012.

Red Bull Stratos/Joerg Mitter/AP

Viewers on the ground looking at the little silvery dot falling from 38 kilometres above could see that Felix Baumgartner was tumbling at one point.

Basking afterward in the success of his record-breaking Mach 1.24 jump, the Austrian parachutist said that, indeed, he had to fight his way out of a spin as he dropped to Earth at a speed that reached a maximum of 373 metres per second.

"That spin became so violent over all axes. It was hard to know how to get out of it," the daredevil told reporters.

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"As the tumble occurs and it ramps up in speed, it gets more and more difficult for Felix to stop it," said the team's technical director, Art Thompson.

That he was able to regain control while encased in an armour-like pressurized suit might be the best argument that the project had some technical value beyond being a commercial stunt.

With private firms now testing a range of new space vehicles, Mr. Baumgartner's team was hoping to gain more insight into how one could survive in cold, near-airless environment.

Astronauts have always struggled with the stiffness created by the difference between the inside of a spacesuit, pumped with enough oxygen to keep a spacefarer alive, and the vacuum outside.

One key challenge for Mr. Baumgartner was having a pressurized suit that was manoeuvrable enough for a skydiver. It was created for him by Canadian engineer Shane Jacobs.

He said that, while he was in the spin, he was tempted to press the button releasing the small emergency chute that would have slowed him. "If I pushed that button, this thing is all over, we're not going to go supersonic."

He held back and made it. "This was tough, believe me. I never anticipated it'd be so tough."

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His feat took place on the 65th anniversary of the first supersonic flight, by Chuck Yeager.

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