Falling star

FELIX BAUMGARTNER TEETERED into balance as he finally took his place atop a skateboard-size step. The step. After five years of simulations, psychological evaluations and test leaps from aircraft and cranes, every part of the plan felt reassuringly familiar on Oct. 14. It was finally time to skydive from space -- 23 miles above Earth. But all of it was nearly undone by a thin layer of frost. "I couldn't see so well," the Austrian says. "It nearly forced a mission abort."

During the ascent from the New Mexico desert, Baumgartner and his Red Bull Stratos team had already set the record for highest manned balloon flight (24.26 miles). Now he was hoping to set marks for free fall from highest altitude, vertical distance in free fall (119,846 feet) and speed, becoming the first human to break the sound barrier without mechanical intervention. But first, he really, really needed a defroster.

In the early days of the project, Baumgartner experienced panic attacks for the first time in his life when he was sealed into his capsule for initial testing. Psychologists helped him overcome that issue, but the anxiety returned just after the halfway point of the ascent, when an electronics hiccup caused his visor's heating unit to "get twitchy." With Baumgartner showing signs of stress, mission control took action. "That's when you saw the live feed go down," says technical project director Art Thompson. "It wasn't really even a question of if it was working or not working; it was a question of making Felix feel comfortable about whether it's working or not working. I was able to convince him that everything was functional." And all of this took place shortly after there was some concern with wind shear at 50,000 feet -- Thompson says that crosscutting gusts could have "cut like a knife and sliced the top" of the 55-story balloon.

About two and a half hours after launch, at 12:01 p.m. MT, the balloon finally reached its apex. And as Baumgartner paused outside the capsule door, the panorama, though slightly obscured by the frost on his visor, was still spectacular. Something, he says, that made him feel immensely tiny.

He also felt tremendously tired, having been up since before dawn to start a pure oxygen soak. He'd had grand oratory plans for his moment in front of millions of global viewers. He did get out a speech, garbled a bit by his increasingly labored breathing. "I was so exhausted," he says. "At some point, some fear gets in there. You have to be 100 percent to make sure you do everything you should to make the mission a success. I didn't feel 100 percent."

When he uttered the words "I'm going home now," the statement, made on the edge of gravity's pull, suddenly felt very heavy. "I wasn't thinking about records anymore," he says. "I just wanted to get back to Mother Earth -- alive. You don't want to die in front of your parents, your girlfriend, all these people watching you."

That included Thompson's seven-person team in mission control, a supremely confident group of space program veterans who were working from a temporary building near Roswell, N.M. But seconds after Felix's leap, that group looked rattled. Their biggest fear had been that he would end up in a prolonged flat spin, uncontrollable movement along three axes, which if not righted before a minute could result in his passing out. Sure enough, he was stuck in a seemingly endless series of 700 mph cartwheels, and the length and violence of it caught him by surprise. "I was on the verge of rapid onset," Baumgartner says, alluding to a flush of blood into the head. "I worked so hard to stay awake. I knew that once I reached a certain level of atmosphere, I could finally steer my body using the air like any parachute jump. I just had to get there."

After nearly 40 seconds, the air finally thickened enough to allow steering, and he could finally snap his body into a head-down, arms-back position. He then became Superman, reaching 833.9 mph, nearly 100 mph faster than predicted, and exceeding Mach 1.24. He says the maneuver felt like "swimming without touching the water."

To create a hyperaccurate portrait of every second of the event, Thompson is now melding data from accelerometers and biomedical monitors with video and photography. Thompson's description of what info he has seen so far is full of awe. "You can see that his flight path was controlled," he says. "He was able to get into the delta position, and the data tells us about high-altitude egress and transitioning through Mach and back. He did an outstanding job as a test pilot."

The test pilot without a plane resolved another major unknown. Some theorized that a shock wave cone, like what a fighter jet breaks through at Mach 1, would damage his suit and expose the jumper to the lethal elements. It did not. The suit is already being hailed as the next-generation space suit, one that may allow astronauts and pilots to bail and survive in situations like the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia tragedies. "I can't describe what it was like to go supersonic because I didn't feel it," Baumgartner says. "I was so focused on getting to the ground, it just kind of came and went."

At the 4:20 mark, he pulled the chute 5,300 feet above New Mexico, catching his breath enough to talk to mission control and get his geographical bearings. He then opened his visor for the first time in six hours and wiped it clean, as genuine Earth-created air hit his lungs. He landed 43.8 miles from the launch area, 9:09 after leaping. His instant reaction: "I was so thankful. I was so proud. I was also so done. My daredevil days were retired right there."

"Retired" is a relative term for a man with Born to Fly tattooed on his forearm. His new mission? Weaving his chopper through the Austrian Alps and peaks in the U.S. to airlift decayed remains of mountain-stranded, lightning-struck cattle, a longtime problem. "It's unusual, yes, but it's something that needs to be done -- and I am a pretty good pilot.

"Besides," he says, "no one will be asking me to jump out of my helicopter in a space suit."

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