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ABORTED: Supersonic skydive called off due to gusty winds
ROSWELL, N.M. -- Extreme athlete and skydiver Felix Baumgartner has canceled his planned death-defying 23-mile free fall into the New Mexico desert because of gusty winds.
The 43-year-old former military parachutist from Austria had hoped to become the first skydiver to break the sound barrier and shatter three other world records.
But the weather on Tuesday forced his team to postpone his planned ascent in a 55-story, ultra-thin helium balloon that was to take him to the stratosphere. Because the balloon is so delicate, it can only take flight if winds are 2 mph or below.
The planned early morning launch had been delayed by high upper-level winds, but the weather calmed down enough for the team to give the go-ahead to proceed. The operation to begin inflating the balloon was delayed due to a radio problem, mission commentator Robert Hager said. Just as that problem was resolved and inflation finally began, the winds picked up again. Mission controllers had to call off the flight and deflate the balloon.
The next opportunity could come on Wednesday or Thursday.
Baumgartner was due to lift off from a field near the airport in a flat dusty town that until now has been best known for a rumored 1947 UFO landing.
The flight plan calls for Baumgartner to make a nearly three-hour ascent to 120,000 feet (23 miles or 36.6 kilometers), then take a bunny-style hop from a pressurized capsule into a near-vacuum where there is barely any oxygen. His descent is expected to be the fastest, farthest free fall from the highest-ever manned balloon.
Among the risks: Any contact with the capsule on his exit could tear the pressurized suit. A rip could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-55 degrees Celsius). It could cause potentially lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids, a condition known as "boiling blood."
He could also spin out of control, causing other risky problems.
The energy drink maker Red Bull, which is sponsoring the feat, has been promoting a live Internet stream of the event at http://www.redbullstratos.com/live from nearly 30 cameras on the capsule, the ground and a helicopter. Organizers said there would be a 20-second delay in their broadcast of footage in case of a tragic accident.
Excited, not nervous
Despite the dangers, high performance director Andy Walshe said the team was excited, not nervous. Baumgartner has made two practice jumps, one from 15 miles (24 kilometers) in March and another from 18 miles (29 kilometers) in July.
"With these big moments, you get a kind of sense that the energy changes," he said Monday. "It really is just kind of a heightened energy. It keeps you on your toes. It's not nervousness, it's excitement."
During the ascent, Walshe said, the team will have views from a number of cameras, including one focused directly on Baumgartner's face. Additionally, they will have data from life support and other systems that show things like whether he is getting enough oxygen.
The team also expects constant communication with Baumgartner, although former astronaut Joe Kittinger, whose 1960 free-fall record from 19.5 miles (31.4 kilometers) Baumgartner hopes to break, is the only member of mission control who will be allowed to talk to him.
More than a stunt
While Baumgartner hopes to set four new world records, his free fall is more than just a stunt.
His dive from the stratosphere should provide scientists with valuable information for next-generation spacesuits and techniques that could help astronauts survive accidents.
Jumping from more than three times the height of the average cruising altitude for jetliners, Baumgartner's expects to hit a speed of 690 mph (1,110 kilometers per hour) or more before he activates his parachute at 9,500 feet above sea level, or about 5,000 feet above the ground in southeastern New Mexico. The total jump should take about 10 minutes.
His medical director is Jonathan Clark, a NASA space shuttle crew surgeon who lost his wife, Laurel Clark, in the 2003 Columbia accident. No one knows what happens to a body when it reaches supersonic speed, Clark said.
"That is really the scientific essence of this mission," said Clark, who is dedicated to improving astronauts' chances of survival in a high-altitude disaster.
Clark told reporters Monday he expects Baumgartner's pressurized spacesuit to protect him from the shock waves of breaking the sound barrier. If all goes well and he survives the jump, NASA could certify a new generation of spacesuits for protecting astronauts and provide an escape option from spacecraft at 120,000 feet, he said.
Currently, spacesuits are certified to protect astronauts to 100,000 feet, the level Kittinger reached in 1960. Kittinger's speed of 614 mph (988 kilometers per hour) was just shy of breaking the sound barrier at that altitude.