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Clark was married to space shuttle astronaut Laurel Clark, who was killed aboard Columbia while it was returning to Earth in 2003, and he has dedicated himself to improving astronauts’ chances of survival in a high-altitude disaster.

NASA is paying close attention, eager to improve its spacecraft and spacesuits for emergency escape, but is merely an observer; the energy drink maker is footing the bill and will not say how much it is costing.

The No. 1 fear is a breach of Baumgartner’s suit.

If it breaks open _ if, say, he bangs into the capsule while jumping or supersonic shock waves batter him _ potentially lethal bubbles could form in his bodily fluids. That’s what’s known as boiling blood. A Soviet military officer died in 1962 after jumping from a balloon at 86,000 feet; the visor of his helmet hit the gondola and cracked.

During the descent, the temperature could be as low as minus 70. Baumgartner’s suit will be all he has between his body and the extreme cold.

Then there’s the risk of a flat spin, in which Baumgartner loses control of his body during the free fall and starts spinning. A long, fast spin, if left unchecked, could turn his eyeballs into blood-soaked, reddish-purple orbs, and he could be left temporarily blind. Also, a massive blood clot could form in his brain.

A small stabilizing chute will automatically deploy if he goes into a flat spin and blacks out or otherwise becomes incapacitated. He also has an emergency chute that will automatically deploy if he is unable to pull the cord on his main chute.

Baumgartner’s team has a plan for every contingency but one: If the balloon ruptures shortly after liftoff because of a gust of wind or something else, the capsule will come crashing down with him inside. He won’t have time to blow the hatch and bail out.

“I have every expectation that he’ll come through this successfully based on our analysis,” Clark says, “but you know, it still is an unknown.”

Kittinger leapt from an open gondola on Aug. 16, 1960, from an altitude of 19.5 miles and reached 614 mph, or Mach 0.9 _ records that stand to this day. He was a captain in the Air Force, and the military’s Excelsior project was a test bed for the nation’s young space program.

Kittinger has been Baumgartner’s mentor, signing on with this new project after decades of refusing others’ requests.

Fearless Felix insists he would not attempt the jump if the odds were against him.

“I think they underestimate the skills of a skydiver,” says Baumgartner, who has made more than 2,500 jumps from planes, helicopters, landmarks and skyscrapers, with no serious injuries.

If he makes it back in one piece, Baumgartner plans on settling down with his girlfriend and flying helicopters in the U.S. and Austria, performing mountain rescues and firefighting.

“After this,” he promises, “I’m going to retire because I’ve been successfully doing things for the last 25 years and I’m still alive.”

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