Skydiver breaks speed of sound in historic jump from edge of space

(CNN) — The sky proved no limit for Felix Baumgartner. The Austrian daredevil, in fact, rose to the edge of space Sunday — 128,100 feet, or 24 miles, above the Earth — before plunging faster than the speed of sound. Minutes later, he landed in southeastern New Mexico and, dropping to his knees, pumped his fists to the sky.

“He made it — tears of joy from Mission Control,” his support team said.

Dubbed “Fearless Felix,” the helicopter pilot and former soldier had parachuted from such landmarks as the Petronas Towers in Malaysia and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. And he’d been preparing for his latest feat for five years — physically, mentally and logistically.

By most accounts, all the hard work paid off. According to preliminary findings cited by Brian Utley, an official observer monitoring the mission, the 43-year-old Baumgartner flew higher than anyone ever in a helium hot air balloon and broke the record for the highest jump.

Still, even Baumgartner seemed taken aback when Utley detailed how fast he had fallen at one point — 833.9 mph, or Mach 1.24, smashing his goal to break the sound barrier.

“I was fighting all the way down to regain control because I wanted to break the speed of sound,” said Baumgartner, who did it all with nothing but a space suit, helmet and parachute. “And then I hit it.”

After a weather delay of several hours, he set off at 9:30 a.m. MT (11:30 a.m. ET) Sunday from Roswell, New Mexico, in breezy, clear conditions, strapped into a pressurized capsule that hung from a giant helium balloon. Over the next two hours, he rose high into the stratosphere.

Then he ran through a 40-step checklist, opened the hatch, disconnected from the capsule, and climbed out onto a step the size of a skateboard.

“Guardian angels will take care of you,” said Mission Control just before he jumped.

“The whole world is watching now,” Baumgartner responded.

After giving a salute, he jumped.

Baumgartner had trained to maximize his speed by forming a crouched “delta” position, and his team on the ground watched for any signs of potentially perilous spins or twists.

He experienced one hitch during his fall about three minutes in, reporting, “My visor is fogging up.” But more problematic was when he began to veer into a “flat spin” — which, if it continued, could send blood rushing to his head and left him out of control.

“There was a period of time where I really thought, ‘I am in trouble,'” Baumgartner said, recalling how he considered pushing a button that would have released a drop chute and ended his bid “to fly supersonic.”

“But after a couple of seconds, I had that feeling I’m getting it under control. And I did,” he added. “And that’s why I broke the speed of sound today.”

After free-falling for about four minutes and 20 seconds, he deployed a parachute for the final mile or two down to Earth.

“There’s the chute,” said a specialist in Mission Control, and the control room broke into applause.

As soon as Baumgartner landed, he dropped to his knees and raised his fists — as the team at Mission Control in Roswell burst into applause.

While he and his team had prepared diligently for the jump, his survival was no guarantee.

They practiced how to avoid getting trapped in a dangerous “horizontal spin,” much like the one Baumgartner feared was happening in the midst of his free-fall. His life also depended on the integrity of his pressure suit, since temperatures high up were expected to hit 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit or lower, and the atmosphere was so thin that his blood would have vaporized if he wasn’t sufficiently protected.

Testing that pressurized flight suit and helmet — which restrict mobility and together weigh 100 pounds — was one goal of the mission, as it could save an astronaut’s life if a manned spacecraft malfunctioned. The outfit had sensors and recorders to measure everything from his speed to his heart rate.

Sunday’s successful jump breaks the record set in 1960 by Col. Joe Kittinger, who fell from 102,800 feet as part of a U.S. Air Force mission. More than 50 years later, Kittinger was a consultant on Baumgartner’s effort, even serving as the lone person from Mission Control talking to the Austrian throughout his attempt.

Kittinger acknowledged the ups and downs of the years-long effort Sunday. The former aviator was all smiles in lauding Baumgartner, whom he said “did perfect,” and all the others involved in making the mission a success.

“It was a team effort, and Felix did a fantastic job,” Kittinger said. “It was an honor for all of us to work with this brave guy.”

CNN’s Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

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