Felix Baumgartner: Falling at the Speed of Sound
Credit: Courtesy Red Bull

On October 14, 24 miles above Roswell, New Mexico, Mission Control radioed 43-year-old Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner the go-ahead. He unhooked his seat belt, stepped from the doorway of his pressurized capsule, and jumped. His mission: to hurtle from the upper portion of Earth's atmosphere to the ground – and survive. "I was standing there," says Baumgartner, "and I thought, 'There's not a lot of people who've stood at this height.'"

Just seconds into his descent, Baumgartner fell into a potentially fatal spin. "There's only one way the blood can get out during a spin," he says. "Through your eyeballs." He countered the spin by sticking one of his arms and legs out and using the resistance to slow the motion and stabilize his position.

For four and a half minutes, Baumgartner bulleted down, becoming the first man to break the speed of sound without a vessel, topping out at an earsplitting 833 miles per hour. At 5,300 feet, his parachute released, and he began to float to the ground.

Prior to Baumgartner's record-breaking jump, his biggest achievement was leaping off the world's highest bridge and building. Born in Austria, he started skydiving at the age of 16 and was part of his country's military demonstration team (similar to the U.S. Army parachute team), and then became a professional skydiver and BASE jumper. Because this wasn't a NASA project – funding came from Red Bull, which hired former NASA engineers and astronauts (including Joe Kittinger, who was the man to set the space-diving record in 1960) – Baumgartner's background proved an obstacle in the planning stage, particularly when trying to buy government technology, such as his suit.

"Everyone was saying, 'Felix isn't an astronaut – what the hell does he know?'" Baumgartner says. He certainly trained like one, with hundreds of hours spent in a wind tunnel, one-on-one sessions with Kittinger, and a tough physical regimen that included shadow boxing, kettlebell lifts, and repeated jumps – from 35,000 and 90,000 feet – in the suit. And in the end, he proved that he can land like an astronaut.