- Associated Press - Sunday, October 14, 2012

ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) - Extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner started his daring ascent to 23 miles above Earth on Sunday, hoping to make a death-defying free fall that could make him the first skydiver to break the sound barrier.

Baumgartner took off in a pressurized capsule carried by a 55-story ultra-thin helium balloon that is expected to take nearly three hours to climb into the stratosphere. If plans go as expected, Baumgartner will then jump into a near vacuum with no oxygen to begin what is expected to be the fastest, farthest free fall from the highest-ever manned balloon.

Any contact with the capsule on his exit could tear the pressurized suit, a rip that could expose him to a lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees. That could cause potentially lethal bubbles to form in his bodily fluids

Shortly after launch, screens at mission control showed the capsule as it rose above 10,000 feet, high above the New Mexico desert as cheers erupted from organizers. Baumgartner also could be seen on video checking instruments inside the capsule.

Earlier in the day, mission control officials declared a “weather hold,” delaying the launch. But about an hour later, organizers described conditions at the launch site as perfect, and said the balloon be inflated and begin its ascent at roughly 9:45 a.m.

The jump from the site near Roswell, N.M., was postponed twice last week because of high winds.

If he succeeds in the death-defying feat, the man nicknamed “Fearless Felix” will break a 52-year-old altitude record by Joe Kittinger, who jumped from 19.5 miles and reached a speed of 614 mph, just under the sound barrier.

This attempt will be the end of a five-year road for Baumgartner, a record-setting high-altitude jumper. He already made two preparation jumps in the area, one in March from 15 miles high and on in July from 18 miles high. It will also be the end of his extreme altitude jumping career; he has promised this will be his final jump.

Coincidentally, Sunday also marks the 65th anniversary of U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager successful attempt to become the first man to officially break the sound barrier aboard an airplane.

Baumgartner plans to travel faster than the speed of sound with only the benefit of a high-tech suit.

Dr. Jonathan Clark, Baumgartner’s medical director, has told reporters he expects the pressurized spacesuit to protect him from the shock waves of breaking the sound barrier. If all goes well and he survives the jump, NASA could certify a new generation of spacesuits for protecting astronauts and provide an escape option from spacecraft at 120,000 feet, he said.

Winds had to be under 2 mph for Baumgartner to start his ascent to the stratosphere from this desert town better known as the site of a rumored UFO landing in 1947.

Jumping from more than three times the height of the average cruising altitude for jetliners, Baumgartner’s expects to hit a speed of 690 mph or more before he activates his parachute at 9,500 feet above sea level, or about 5,000 feet above the ground in southeastern New Mexico. The total jump should take about 10 minutes.

The energy drink maker Red Bull, which is sponsoring the feat, has been promoting a live Internet stream of the event 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.

After the jump, Baumgartner says he plans to settle down with his girlfriend and fly helicopters on mountain rescue and firefighting missions in the U.S. and Austria.