Record-bid skydiver Felix Baumgartner in test leap


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Skydiving daredevil Felix Baumgartner is more than half-way to his goal of setting a world record for the highest jump.

The Austrian lifted off yesterday for a test jump from New Mexico aboard a helium balloon. He rode inside a pressurised capsule to 13.6 miles, then jumped. He landed safely, according to project spokeswoman Trish Medalen.

He is aiming for nearly 23 miles this summer. The record is 19.5 miles.

Yesterday's jump was a test of his capsule, full-pressure suit, parachutes and other systems. A mini Mission Control - fashioned after Nasa's - monitored his flight.

Mr Baumgartner reached speeds of up to 364.4mph and was in free fall for three minutes and 43 seconds before pulling his parachute cords, Ms Medalen said. The entire jump lasted eight minutes and eight seconds. Ms Medalen stressed that the numbers are still unofficial.

When the 42-year-old known as "Fearless Felix" leaps from 120,000 feet in a few months, he expects to break the sound barrier as he falls through the stratosphere at supersonic speed. There is virtually no atmosphere that far up, making it extremely hostile to humans, thus the need for a pressure suit and oxygen supply.

The record for the highest free fall is held by Joe Kittinger, a retired US air force officer from Florida. He jumped from 19.5 miles in 1960. Mr Kittinger is now 83 and one of Mr Baumgartner's chief advisers.

Mr Baumgartner plans one more dry run - jumping from 90,000 feet - before attempting the full 120,000 feet. The launch window opens in July and extends until the beginning of October.

Mr Baumgartner has jumped from some of the highest landmarks and skyscrapers on the planet - the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro, the Millau Viaduct in southern France and the 101-story Taipei 101 in Taiwan.

He has also plunged deep into the Earth, leaping face-first into a pitch-dark cave in Croatia.

Mr Baumgartner considers that jump his most dangerous feat so far, soon to be outdone by his stratospheric plunge. His mission takes its name, Red Bull Stratos, from the stratosphere as well as the energy drink-maker sponsor.

"I like to challenge myself," Mr Baumgartner said in a recent interview. "And this is the ultimate skydive. I think there's nothing bigger than that."

He has caught Nasa's attention, even though space officially begins much higher at 62 miles.

A former Nasa flight director directs the medical team - Dr Jonathan Clark, whose astronaut wife Laurel was killed aboard space shuttle Columbia in 2003. The accident led Dr Clark to become an expert in spacecraft emergency escape.

Mr Kittinger and Dr Clark were among those taking part in today's dress rehearsal.