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Michael Watts

An Austrian man, Felix Baumgartner, stepped off a metal platform near Roswell, New Mexico on Sunday, October 4, and plummeted to Earth from 24 miles in space. The skydiver provided a few static-filled words for fate.

“Sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you are,” said Baumgartner, 43.

After that statement, he jumped and became a small white dot against the vast blackness of space. Baumgartner became the first human to break the sound barrier under his own control- with a little help from gravity. With his leap from an altitude of 128,000 feet, he becomes a tremendous figure in aerospace history, joining the ranks of those who have defied personal and technological limits as they tempted fate and tested science. Millions tuned-in from around the globe to experience the live jump that was viewed on many computers and smartphones.  Baumgartner plummeted towards Earth for more than 4 minutes, reaching a maximum speed of 833.9 miles per hour. No one has ever reached that speed wearing only a spacesuit. He fell at supersonic speeds breaking the altitude and speed records set a half a century ago by Joe Kittinger, now 84, a retired Air Force colonel whose consoling voice guided Baumgartner through the courageous and intimidating process.

The mission was possible due to an expensive operation chalk full of top scientists, but also to the pioneering work of adventurer’s past, said Margaret Weitekamp, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum who focuses on popular culture and spaceflight.

“In many ways, Felix was standing on the shoulders of giants,” she said. “Baumgartner himself will be advancing the science of how the human body responds to the upper atmosphere, just as many test pilots did before him.”

The mission was known as Red Bull Stratos after the Austrian energy drink company that sponsored the jump, and this mission also set records for highest manned balloon flight (113, 740 feet in 1961) and fastest free fall (Kittinger at 614 mph). Strato’s mission is to test how humans and space suits would react in case astronauts need to make an emergency exit at high altitudes.

At the start of Baumgartner’s decent, a scary crisis had emerged when he began spinning uncontrollably in the thin air of the stratosphere, which is what scientists hoped to avoid. This same problem had nearly killed Mr. Kittinger half a century ago. Thankfully, as the air thickened, it managed to stop the spin and the brave pioneer was able to fall smoothly until he opened his parachute about a mile above the ground and calmly landed on his knees in the New Mexico desert. Cameras focused on his family- who have never been to the U.S. before- and showed his parents, brother, and girlfriend cheering. Baumgartner has been working up to this world record breaking feat for the past few years.

“It was harder than I expected,” said Baumgartner. “Trust me, when you stand up there on top of the world, you become so humble. It’s not about breaking records any more. It’s not about getting scientific data. It’s all about coming home.”