On this day in 2012, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner jumps from a capsule attached to a helium balloon approximately 24 miles above Earth and becomes the first person to break the sound barrier without the protection or propulsion of a vehicle. After making his record-setting jump, which was witnessed live by a global audience via cameras mounted on his capsule, the 43-year-old Baumgartner landed safely in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico.
Baumgartner, who was born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1969, started skydiving at age 16 and spent time in the Austrian army as a paratrooper. He went on to perform a series of daredevil feats, including becoming the first person to jump from one of the twin 1,483-foot-high Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, then the world’s tallest buildings, in 1999, and becoming the first person to skydive across the English Channel using a carbon-fiber wing, in 2003. The Austrian’s record-breaking 2012 jump was more than five years in the making and involved a team of engineers, scientists and other aeronautic experts who custom-designed Baumgartner’s equipment, including his pressurized space suit (intended to prevent his blood from boiling at high altitudes) and 6-foot-wide, 2,900-pound, pressurized capsule. In 2010 the project, which was financed by energy drink company Red Bull, hit a roadblock when Baumgartner started having panic attacks while undergoing endurance tests in his pressurized suit and helmet. However, a sports psychologist eventually helped him learn to cope with his claustrophobia.
On the morning of October 14, 2012, a 550-foot-high helium balloon made of 40 acres of ultrathin plastic lifted the capsule carrying Baumgartner, nicknamed “Fearless Felix,” from the launch site at Roswell International Air Center. After reaching an altitude of 127,852.4 feet, Baumgartner stepped off the capsule and plunged toward Earth. His descent took nine minutes and 18 seconds—four minutes and 20 seconds of it in a free fall of 119,431 feet, during which he reached a top speed of 843.6 miles per hour, or Mach 1.25. Specially designed cameras positioned inside and outside of his capsule, as well as on the ground, enabled millions of people around the world to watch Baumgartner live online and on television. At an altitude of 8,421 feet above sea level, he deployed his parachute and went on to land smoothly in the desert. His entire mission, from launch to landing, took two hours and 47 minutes.
In addition to breaking the sound barrier, Baumgartner also set a new record for the highest-altitude jump. The previous record holder, Joseph Kittinger, skydived from an altitude of 102,800 feet in 1960. Kittinger, a former Air Force colonel, was part of the team that helped prepare Baumgartner for his jump, which happened to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the day when Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier in a plane.