Skydive 'from the edge of outer space?'

By Blake Mathews - Meteorologist
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Talk about a high dive. From 26 miles up, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner broke several world records and became the first person ever to break the sound barrier via free fall.

At first glance, it appears as though Felix is on the edge of outer space itself.  In fact, he's so high up, you can see the curvature of the Earth with nothing but black space above him. But there are many misconceptions about how high he really was and if indeed he was on the edge of space and time.

I thought I'd shed some light on some interesting facts about the stratosphere and why his jump was indeed so risky.

Baumgartner plummeted from 120,000 feet. Of the four layers of the atmosphere (troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere and ionosphere), he was in the lower portion of the Stratosphere; the second layer of the four layers of Earth's atmosphere. In fact, there was still another 60 miles of atmosphere above Felix at the time he jumped.

At 26 miles up, the air pressure was a staggering 7 millibars. Average surface pressure is 1013 millibars. That means there is very little air at that height. Weather Authorities John Gaughan says, ''at that altitude, without a space suit, Baumgartner's blood would have boiled.'' To put it in perspective, Baumgarnter was 19 miles higher in the sky than airplanes fly which is 37,000 feet or 7 miles up.

At this altitude, a person without a suit on would begin to expand or blow up like a balloon. While the balloon reference is a bit of an exaggeration, the same sort of expansion would occur with the human body. At the Earth's surface, there is 15 pounds of air pressing against us at any one time. It's what keeps our skin firm and our bodies 'compressed.' Without the weight of the air, our bodies would expand.

The demarcation of a particular layer of the atmosphere is determined by its temperature. In the Stratosphere (where temperatures get warmer with height), Baumgartner recorded a temperature of -4 degrees Celsius; or about 25 degrees Fahrenheit -- downright warm compared to what the temperature was below him -- yes, below him. Just a few miles below him, the temperatures hover in the -80 degree Fahrenheit range. These temperatures are often recorded with infrared satellites during hurricane season.

The deep convection or thunderstorms that meteorologists point out on tv is measured via temperature. The colder the cloud tops (-80 degrees), the stronger the storm. But that's another conversation for another day. As Baumgartner free fell, the temperatures would have dropped from his down right ''balmy'' temperature of 25 degrees above zero (F) to an unbelievable -80 degrees (F) with a slow rise in temperature the rest of the way to the surface. The only way to survive that plunge is to have a space suit on.

Few places on the surface of the Earth have ever seen such extreme temperatures. To relate to this, the temperatures in Minnesota a few years ago were in the -30 degree range. Folks went outside and threw boiling water into the air and the boiling water evaporated before ever hitting the ground. Now picture temperatures 50 degrees colder than that!

Finally, Felix became the first person ever to exceed the sound barrier without some sort of vehicle (car, plane or boat). Estimates are that the dare-devil reached a top speed of 834 mph. That's faster than granny grabbing the waffle off the plate in that one Eggo Waffle commercial emblazoned in my memory from childhood.


Some of you may have been taught that terminal velocity (max speed of a mass free falling) is 120 mph. According to John Gaughan, that's only in the first 1,000 feet up from the surface thanks in part to the density of air governing the speed. But the higher you go, the thinner the air which means less resistance and much higher speeds.

So as Baumgartner rocketed to Earth, his speed naturally decreased from 834 mph to a crawling 150 mph before he pulled the rip cord at around 5,000 feet.

So bottom line here, the feat that Felix Baumgartner accomplished is a quintessential example of human ingenuity. While it is often said, ''the sky is the limit,'' Felix may have indeed reached that point. I wonder if it's possible to jump from a spacecraft? Or the moon? Or Mars?

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