Felix Baumgartner will definitely be going faster than a speeding bullet if all goes as planned next Monday, when the daredevil skydiver is slated to make his keenly awaited leap from a capsule 36 kilometres above the surface of the Earth.
Within 40 seconds, he should accelerate to about 1110 kilometres per hour - faster than the speed of sound in the cold, sparse air at the edge of space. As part of the Red Bull Stratos project, the jump will potentially set the record for the highest skydive, and might see Baumgartner become the first human to break the sound barrier in free fall.
In an interview with New Scientist earlier this year, Baumgartner invoked the spirit of the first powered aviators as his justification against those who call the project crazy:
They also said that about the Wright brothers. We are all flying around world these days because of those so-called crazy people.
In that vein, Red Bull highlights the value of the data Baumgartner's jump will generate, noting in particular the relevance to the blossoming industry of commercial space tourism.
Right now, no one knows what would happen if a commercial spacecraft had to bail out its passengers kilometres above the surface, and the effects of supersonic freefall on the human body are unclear. In an FAQ on the project website, medical director Jon Clark says:
We try to anticipate as much as we can about supersonic speed, but we really don't know, because nobody has done this before.
Baumgartner's jump will help answer questions about possible safety measures in space flight, something insurance companies in particular will probably be keen to understand. Baumgartner told New Scientist:
Maybe in the beginning they don't care, but if you have your first accident, insurance companies will say, "Hey, you guys need to wear spacesuits and parachutes!" Remember how cars didn't have seat belts in the old days, and now we have airbags, seat belts, multiple brakes. This is where we enter the space game.
With what we currently know, getting one man ready to make the fall on purpose has taken seven years of preparation, including designing a specialised pressure suit. And in true space flight tradition, there have been delays in launching the mission.
Baumgartner conducted numerous smaller jumps as practice for the big leap, with the record-breaking attempt set for 24 September. But the capsule which carries Baumgartner into the stratosphere was damaged when it fell back to Earth after a July trial run, so the jump was rescheduled for 8 October.
The Red Bull team will be now watching to see if the weather holds this weekend over the New Mexico desert where Baumgartner will lift off. Most importantly, they need the right conditions so that the high-altitude balloon carrying the capsule can safely soar to the jump point, a trek that should take about 2.5 hours.
Getting back down, of course, will be a faster trip - a mere 335 seconds - although perhaps not as exhilarating as you might think.
"The bad news is you don't feel the speed," Baumgartner told New Scientist.