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Austrian Daredevil Lands on His Feet After Supersonic Jump from the Stratosphere

October 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Felix Baumgartner jumped from 24 miles above the earth to break a 52-year-old record for the highest successful free fall jump. Hari Sreenivasan talks to science correspondent Miles O'Brien who explains what scientists can learn from this jump, especially about the survival of the human being in the face of extreme risks.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the highest and fastest jump in history, not just the records, but the science behind it and the man who did it.

For that story, we turn again to Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Felix Baumgartner was in the stratosphere more than 24 miles above Earth when he emerged from a capsule on Sunday.

JOE KITTINGER, former Air Force colonel: Working With Felix Baumgartner: There it is. There’s the world out there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In his ear, the voice of Joe Kittinger, the retired Air Force colonel who set a record in 1960 with a jump from 102,000 feet.

JOE KITTINGER: Our guardian angel will take care you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: With that, the 43-year-old Austrian daredevil began his own freefall toward Roswell, N.M., four miles higher than ever attempted before.

For 35 seconds, Baumgartner’s dive spun out of control, amid fears he could lose consciousness. Then Baumgartner regained control and continued his freefall for nearly four more minutes, reaching a speed of almost 834 miles an hour at one point, faster than the speed of sound, another record.

When he descended to 5,000 feet, Baumgartner opened his parachute and eventually landed safely on his feet.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MAN: New world record holder.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Afterward, he explained what happened in the first minute of his dive.

FELIX BAUMGARTNER: Well, it started really good because my exit was perfect. I did exactly what I was supposed to do. And then I was falling over. And it looked like for a second I’m going to tumble two more times and then I have it under control.

But for some reason, that spin became so violent over all axes, and it was hard to know how to get out of that spin, like swimming without touching the water.

And it’s hard because every time when it turns you around, you have to figure out what to do. So, I was sticking my arm out. And it became worse.

I had a lot of pressure in my head. But it didn’t feel like I’m passing out. I was still feeling OK. I think I can handle this situation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: More than eight million people watched Felix Baumgartner’s jump on a live stream global feed from the event’s sponsor, Red Bull.

For more, we turn to NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien. He joins us tonight from Detroit.

So, Miles, aside from the record chase, aside from the amazing marketing opportunity for a sports drink, why do this?

Is there some science that we’re learning here?

MILES O’BRIEN: Absolutely, Hari. It’s never been done before. The fact that the last time this happened in any close manner with Joe Kittinger was 52 years ago tells you there were some more things to learn.

A human being had never traveled supersonic just in a suit. And while the experts and all the technical people I have spoken with said they fully expected this would be just fine, it hadn’t been done.

He was heavily instrumented. And it gave them an awful lot of information and data about survival of a human being under great duress. What if there were a rocket of some kind, a spaceship, and there was some sort of ejection scenario? We know a little bit more about how a human being might survive that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What were some of the other risks? Obviously, the big one is you hit the ground without the parachute. But what are some of the other risks that he started to mention when he went into a flat spin or a dead spin?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, that flat spin you saw, that image, which we have seen just recently from his suit, really will make your stomach turn when you think about it.

But the fact is, as he spun and spun faster and faster, the centrifugal force could have easily put him into a blackout situation and perhaps much worse.

Fortunately, just as things were getting right to the edge, he got to the point in the atmosphere where he had a little bit of resistance from air molecules and was able to right himself, as he was trained to do over all these years as a skydiver. So that was a big risk and he got through it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tell us a little bit more about Felix Baumgartner. Who is he?

MILES O’BRIEN: He’s a daredevil.

You know, Joe Kittinger, who you talked about, is — was an Air Force veteran, Silver Star, Korean Veteran, Vietnam veteran, spent some time as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.

Felix Baumgartner is a different cat entirely. He’s a BASE-jumper, the kind of guy who jumps off of buildings and bridges and cliffs and into caves and has used carbon fiber wings to actually span the entire English Channel. He’s a daredevil by profession.

But what was interesting about this was, it wasn’t just about the dare. There was a very interesting piece of science in all of this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you had a chance to talk to some of the folks behind him, the team behind him. One of them, the doctor, really has an interesting backstory.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, Jonathan Clark, who is a NASA veteran and was a part of the medical team in the shuttle program, his deceased wife, Laurel Clark, was on board Columbia.

So he has a professional interest which also overlaps a deep personal interest in survival at high altitudes under duress.

So it’s interesting. You know, you would excuse a man in this profession of understanding how people can survive these situations for walking away from that. But instead he was a part of the Columbia accident investigation, helping the team understand how the crew perished and how you might be able to save a crew in a similar situation in the future. And he was a part of this team.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s also interesting that the only voice inside Baumgartner’s head is the man who has done it, or come very close to it, is really the only person on the planet that knows what it feels like.

MILES O’BRIEN: You couldn’t write a better Hollywood script than that, could you, except that maybe it happened over Roswell, the land of UFOs. Unidentified falling object. Of course, he was identified. But it was just — it was perfect.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

And also let’s talk about the social nature of this. In the U.S., there were seven football games going on. But this was broadcast in 50 different countries and eight million people logged in at the same time and watched it on the Internet.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s 21st century marketing brilliance. Red Bull has cracked the code.

As we all shift through these tectonic changes in the media world which you and I are so familiar with, right now, Hari, Red Bull has really figured out how to reach an audience and how to identify an event like this, gather a huge mass audience, and have it linked so integrally to its brand.

It’s perfectly on brand what they do. And they market it in just the right way. So, I think they figured out how to market to the masses bypassing all the channels we’re used to.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so what’s next for this guy, Felix Baumgartner?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, you know, he said he’s done. He wants to go back to flying helicopters and doing normal things, as it were.

I suspect, however — I suspect there will be another adventure that will come his way, and he will be tempted. Don’t you think?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes, absolutely.

Miles O’Brien, science correspondent for the NewsHour, thanks so much.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome.