The team could only hope that the coincidence augured well. Conditions would be not unlike those of the aborted attempt on October 9: the team would have to be ready to launch at a moment’s notice when the winds settled.
Felix arrived at the airfield between 2:00 and 3:00 am, examined the capsule, and headed for the silver trailer that was his inner sanctum. He had his final medical checkup and was suited up by Mike Todd to begin “pre-breathing” 100 percent oxygen to eliminate dangerous nitrogen from his system.
The team went through agonizing “weather holds” – waiting to see if the wind would cooperate. Finally, at 9:28 am Mountain Time, the balloon took off.
The crew cheered, and the world did, too. While live updates were broadcast on television internationally, millions more watched the webstream. Viewers could even hear the radio interchange between Joe Kittinger in Mission Control and Felix in the capsule.
That is, they heard it until the audio feed was cut to allow Felix and Joe to discuss a problem in private.
Felix was experiencing fogging on the inside of his helmet visor. Every time he breathed out, condensation appeared on the faceplate. There were 111 tiny wires incorporated in the visor to prevent fogging. Was there an issue with the power supply from the capsule?
The team discussed the problem while Felix continued to ascend. The procedures were clear – if Felix couldn’t see, he couldn’t jump, because he had to be able to spot the horizon to stabilize himself. If he couldn’t see, the protocol required him to ride the capsule down, despite the automatic safety features in his parachute rig.
But was the faceplate fogging significant, or was it normal condensation? They’d come so close. Should they really abort now?
The team offered Felix an option – disconnect from the capsule power so that the visor would be powered by the batteries in his chest pack. That’s what he’d have to do when he jumped anyway. When Felix tried and thought it was an improvement, the team told him that the decision to jump was his call. It was his life on the line.
Felix decided to go for it.
The capsule kept rising, going past the original 120,000-foot target to flirt with 128,000 feet. With the live viewers allowed to listen in again, Joe walked Felix through the final checklist and told him a guardian angel would look after him.
Felix says that the view when he opened the door and stepped outside was breathtaking – “the curvature of the earth below and a completely black sky above.” Aware that few people had ever witnessed such a sight, he commented, “Sometimes, you have to get up really high to see how small you are.”
He also was aware that he was in an unforgiving environment with only about 10 minutes of oxygen on his back. With the words “I’m going home now,” Felix jumped.
The step-off was perfect, exactly as he’d practiced. He accelerated at a rate that would shame a supercar… and then it started. The spinning. It was even tougher than he’d imagined. On their screens, the Mission Control team could see a small white oblong twirling helplessly. It was Felix’s form tracked from the ground by high-powered infrared cameras. The rotations continued – 16, someone later counted – before suddenly stopping. Felix had managed to straighten out without the help of the stabilization chute in his rig.
When the team saw a red-and-white parachute bloom on their monitors, the cheers mounted. The rest of the descent was remarkably like a normal skydive, with Felix landing on his feet in a casual jog. He sank to his knees in relief, but it wasn’t until the ground crews meeting him announced that they’d heard his sonic boom that he was sure he’d broken the speed of sound. Preliminary estimates indicated that he’d reached over 833 miles per hour, at least Mach 1.24.
Paradoxically, by going so fast, Felix missed out on a record. His freefall had lasted somewhere around 4 minutes and 20 seconds – but the longest-lasting freefall in history, although it covered a shorter distance, was 4 minutes, 36 seconds. That record belonged to Joe Kittinger. Felix had fallen farther than Joe, but so much faster that he covered the distance in less time. No one seemed to mind.
He’d done it. They’d done it. Felix really had become a hero. And Red Bull Stratos had made history.
Back at Mission Control, the “old guys” – the men who’d seen it all over decades of aerospace progression – were wiping happy tears from their eyes. As Felix’s retrieval helicopter touched down, they rushed out to congratulate him. Art and Joe couldn’t stop smiling.
“Felix started this program as a BASE jumper and skydiver and ended as a test pilot,” said a beaming Mike Todd, wrapping the new record holder in a big hug. “He was the perfect guy for the job.”
Although the mission is complete, Felix hasn’t changed. He still wants to see the world from above. He plans to use his helicopter piloting skills to fight fires, rescue mountaineers, and shuttle skiers and snowboarders to remote locations.
Meanwhile, the science team is sharing the new data at conferences and in journals. Red Bull Stratos proved that a human could survive acceleration through the speed of sound, and both government and commercial organizations are keenly interested in the mission’s safety innovations, including the next-generation pressure suit and parachute system, as well as medical findings and protocols.
But what the team members come back to over and over again is the way the mission seems to have inspired people all over the globe. “I think this touched the human spirit,” Jon Clark says. “This is a wonderful thing, and maybe the most enduring legacy of Felix’s efforts.”
Figures preliminary, pending official confirmation