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Daredevil plans one giant leap

Red Bull Stratos
Click for video: Daredevil Felix Baumgartner (right) tries on a pressure suit and
helmet while Red Bull Stratos technical project director Art Thompson and retired Air
Force Col. Joe Kittinger look on. Kittinger holds the record for highest parachute
jump, and Baumgartner wants to break that record. Click on the image to watch
a video clip about the project from NBC's TODAY show.

One of aerospace's most enduring records was set 50 years ago by Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger, who made the highest-ever parachute jump from a balloon floating 102,800 feet above the ground. It was one giant leap that helped blaze a trail for the Space Age.

Ever since then, skydivers in search of glory have tried unsuccessfully to break that record. Now Felix Baumgartner, who is already renowned for skyjumping across the English Channel, is gearing up to make the attempt this year - with Kittinger's help.

"With Joe on board, I feel safe," Baumgartner said on NBC's TODAY show. "I'm really looking forward to doing this."

Details about Baumgartner's near-space mission came out on Friday during a series of announcements by its corporate sponsor, Red Bull.  The mission represents one giant leap for Red Bull, which has long sponsored a team of skyjumpers to market its energy drinks. Although the company hasn't said how much the Red Bull Stratos mission will cost, the price tag seems likely to hit hundreds of thousands of dollars, or millions.

Baumgartner, 40, said the record attempt would mark "the next logical step" in his two-decade career as a parachute jumper. The highlight so far has been his English Channel crossing in 2003 - which involved jumping from a plane 33,000 feet over the white cliffs of Dover and gliding 22 miles to the French coast in a suit equipped with wings and a chute. He has also done death-defying (and security-defying) jumps from monuments in Brazil, France, Sweden and Taiwan.

The Stratos mission is something completely different, though. It would involve rising up in a pressurized balloon cabin to a height of 120,000 feet - and then taking one big step out of the cabin, wearing a prototype spacesuit.

"Within the first 30 seconds, I'm going to reach the speed of sound," Baumgartner said.

Kittinger came close to doing that during his Project Excelsior parachute jump in 1960, which was aimed at studying how military pilots could best endure high-altitude ejections. The record-setting fall was actually Kittinger's third and final outing for Excelsior. During the first jump, he blacked out and survived only because his automatic chute-opening system worked. During the third jump, one of Kittinger's gloves malfunctioned, but he again survived with all his body parts intact.

50 years of chasing the 'Right Stuff'
Today, at the age of 81, Kittinger looks back at his achievement with the proper attitude of "Right Stuff" coolness: "When it came time to go, I was ready to go," he said.

And now he believes it's time for his record to go - which is why he's serving as one of Baumgartner's advisers. "Records are meant to be broken," he said. "It's human nature."

The reason why Kittinger's record has stood so long is not for lack of trying. There's a long list of skydivers who have tried, including Australia's Rodd Millner, America's Cheryl Stearns, Britain's Steve Truglia and France's Michel Fournier. No one has succeeded so far.

It looked as if Fournier might have done it in 2008 with his "Big Jump" in Saskatchewan - but his high-altitude balloon slipped away as it was being inflated, leaving Fournier and his capsule on the ground.

Fournier has estimated that his efforts to break Kittinger's record have cost nearly $20 million so far, and he's not done yet. In fact, a near-space race may be shaping up. The Frenchman says he's aiming to make another attempt in Canada this May - that is, assuming the weather is favorable and he can come up with the rest of the $500,000 (Ĩ360,000) that's required for the project.

The people behind Baumgartner's attempt say they plan to make the attempt sometime this year, somewhere in North America. But they can't yet be more precise on those points. They say the timing will depend in part upon the development and testing of the pressure suit, the high-altitude balloon and other high-tech essentials.

Red Bull isn't the only company behind the project. For example, the pressure suit is being developed by David Clark Co., which has also helped create spacesuits for NASA and high-altitude suits for the U.S. military. The company's work on Baumgartner's giant leap could well carry over to the creation of NASA's next spacesuit.

Red Bull is already working out deals for live coverage of Baumgartner's mission on TV, the Web and mobile phones. That would include a 90-minute documentary for the BBC and the National Geographic Channel, tentatively titled "Space Dive."

The future of space diving?
Before that title is set in stone, the BBC might want to check with Rick Tumlinson, a longtime space activist and entrepreneur who has been working on his own high-altitude skydiving venture, known as Project SpaceDiver.

"'Space diver' is a trademarked term for us," Tumlinson told me today. "Anybody else just jumps from high altitudes. We are the space diving company."

Project SpaceDiver would involve an extended test program that starts with relatively low-altitude skydives from a rocket-powered vehicle, and goes all the way up to orbital heights. The ultimate goal is to produce a system that would let astronauts dive to safety from a space vehicle or space station in the event of an emergency.

Tumlinson has been working with Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace on the idea, but he wouldn't rule out partnering with other rocket companies as well. He's glad to see Baumgartner, Red Bull and other players chasing after Kittinger's record. "They're going to beat the record, and we're fine with that." Tumlinson said. But he believes Project SpaceDiver will turn out to be much more than a stunt.

"We intend to build on their experience and open the stratosphere and beyond to a wide variety of people," he said. "And keep in mind, our goal is eventually to return people alive from space itself."

It's too early to tell whether Project SpaceDiver will get off the ground anytime soon. For that matter, it's too early to tell when Baumgartner will take his own giant leap. But if both ventures follow their hoped-for trajectories, Tumlinson says he'll still end up holding the high ground.

"They're basically repeating, from a balloon, something that was done in the 1960s," he told me. "We wish them well. "We're very excited about what they're doing, but they're going old school. We are going to fly from a rocket. No matter how high they go, we're going to go higher ... because it's a freaking rocket."

For a virtual vision of future space diving, check out Clark Lindsey's posting on RLV and Space Transport News. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."