ROSWELL, N.M. Plans for extreme athlete and skydiver Felix Baumgartner to make a death-defying, 23-mile free fall into the southeastern New Mexico desert were on hold Tuesday morning due to winds, but preparations are now underway. Stratos team members will unfurl the specialized helium balloon that will take Baumgartner 23 miles into the air.
Projections are now for a launch at 1pm EDT, the beginning of a two-and-a-half hour ascent that will take Baumgartner to the edge of Earth's atmosphere.
The 43-year-old former military parachutist from Austria planned to take off in a 55-story, ultra-thin and easy-to-tear helium balloon that would take him into the stratosphere for a jump that he hopes will make him the first skydiver to break the sound barrier and shatter three other world records.
Mission meteorologist Don Day said winds on the ground were an ideal 1 to 2 mph, but were 20 mph at the balloon-top level of 700 feet before sunrise.
"We need 3 mph or less at 800 feet," Day said earlier in the day, putting the chance of a launch Tuesday at "50-50."
Conditions have since improved, but odds of a launch are still uncertain. The helium balloon takes an hour to be laid out, after which Baumgartner will undergo "pre-breathing" exercises to prepare his body for the ascent. Once the team gets a green light, the balloon will be inflated and Baumgartner will step into the capsule.
After sunrise, Day said there were indications the upper level winds might calm, so the team pushed the launch window from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. MT, noon at the latest. A final decision would have to be made about 9:30 a.m. MT, as it takes about an hour and half to fill the balloon and get Baumgartner suited up and ready.
If the launch, already delayed one day by a cold front, can't go Tuesday, Day said the next try probably wouldn't be until Thursday. In addition to the wind, he said, the team was having some issues with the GPS system.
The balloon had been scheduled to launch about 7 a.m. from a field near the airport in a flat dusty town that until now has been best known for a rumored 1947 UFO landing.
Baumgartner spent Monday at his hotel, mentally preparing for the dangerous feat with his parents, girlfriend and four close friends, his team said. He had a light dinner of salmon and a salad, then had a massage. He spent Tuesday morning resting in an Airstream trailer near the launch site.Among the risks: any contact with the capsule on his exit could tear the pressurized suit. A rip could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as 70 degrees below zero F. It could cause potentially lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids, a condition known as "boiling blood."
He could also spin out of control, causing other risky problems.
The energy drink maker Red Bull, which is sponsoring the feat, has been promoting a live Internet stream of the event at redbullstratos.com/live from nearly 30 cameras on the capsule, the ground and a helicopter. But organizers said there will be a 20-second delay in their broadcast of footage in case of a tragic accident.
Despite the dangers and questionable wind forecast, high performance director Andy Walshe said the team was excited, not nervous. Baumgartner has made two practice jumps, one from 15 miles (24 kilometers) in March and another from 18 miles in July.
"With these big moments, you get a kind of sense that the energy changes," he said Monday. "It really is just kind of a heightened energy. It keeps you on your toes. It's not nervousness, it's excitement."
During the ascent, Walshe said, the team will have views from a number of cameras, including one focused directly on Baumgartner's face. Additionally, they will have data from life support and other systems that show things like whether he is getting enough oxygen.
The team also expects constant communication with Baumgartner, although former astronaut Joe Kittinger, whose 1960 free-fall record from 19.5 miles Baumgartner hopes to break, is the only member of mission control who will be allowed to talk to him.