AN Austrian daredevil has delayed plans to skydive from a balloon 37km over the New Mexico desert today due to high winds.
Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old helicopter pilot, hot-air balloonist and professional skydiver, would break a longstanding altitude record and the sound barrier if the jump goes ahead this afternoon.
Baumgartner's team issued a statement today saying the launch of the massive but fragile helium balloon that would carry him to an altitude of 36,000m) above Roswell, New Mexico, had been delayed until at least 5.30pm.
The delay was prompted by winds at about 200m above the launch site.
It was not immediately clear how long the window for the possible launch would remain open but it takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to reach 120,000 feet.
The 850,000-cubic-metre plastic balloon, which is about one-tenth the thickness of a plastic bag, cannot handle winds greater than 10kmh. The balloon will carry a specially made space capsule where Baumgartner will spend the ride into the stratosphere.
Baumgartner hopes to break the current record of 31,000m for the highest-altitude freefall, a milestone set in 1960 by US Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger.
By jumping from 36,000m Baumgartner will also break the sound barrier. With virtually no air to cushion his fall, he is expected to reach the speed of sound, which is 1,110 kmh at that altitude, after about 35 seconds of freefall.
He will stay supersonic for nearly a minute and should freefall for a total of 5 minutes and 35 seconds.
When Baumgartner jumps from the capsule, the position of his body will be crucial, since there is no air for him to move around in. If he falls in a way that puts him into a rapid spin, Baumgartner could pass out and risk damaging his eyes, brain and cardiovascular system.
Baumgartner's safety gear includes a custom spacesuit to protect him from the low pressure and the extreme cold. Temperatures are expected to be as low as about minus-57 degrees Celsius.)
The near-vacuum puts him at risk of ebullism, a potentially lethal condition in which fluids in the body turn to gas and the blood literally boils. Severe lung damage could occur within minutes.
Helicopters equipped with newly developed instruments to treat lung damage will be standing by during Baumgartner's skydive.
"What we're doing here is not just a record attempt. It's a flight test program," said project adviser Jonathan Clark, a medical doctor and former NASA flight surgeon.
Among those interested in the spacesuit research are commercial companies developing spaceships for passenger travel. The research could help people survive a high-altitude accident.
The jump is being webcasting at www.redbullstratos.com