An Austrian daredevil leapt into the stratosphere from a balloon hovering near the edge of space 38 kilometres above Earth, breaking as many as three world records including the highest skydive ever, project sponsors said.
Cheers broke out as Felix Baumgartner, 43, jumped from a skateboard sized shelf outside the 3.3-by-2.4 metre fiberglass and acrylic capsule that was carried as high as 128,000 feet by an enormous balloon.
"We love you Felix!" screamed the crowd as he plunged through the stratosphere.
His body pierced the atmosphere at speeds topping 700 miles per hour, appearing to achieve another of his goals: to become the first skydiver to break the speed of sound, according to the project website.
He sped toward Earth on the 65th anniversary of legendary American pilot Chuck Yeager's flight shattering the sound barrier on October 14, 1947.
"Looks like he probably broke Mach," project commentator Bob Hager said, referring to Mach 1, more than 690 miles per hour, used to measure the speed of sound.
Baumgartner broke records for the highest altitude manned balloon flight and the highest altitude skydive before landing safely on the ground and raising his arms in a victory salute about 10 minutes after he stepped into the air.
As his teary-eyed mother, father and girlfriend watched on monitors miles below, Baumgartner prepared to jump from the pressurised capsule by going through a checklist of 40 items with project adviser Joe Kittinger, holder of a 30 km altitude parachute jump record that Baumgartner smashed.
Earlier in the flight, he expressed concern that his astronaut-like helmet was not heating properly.
"This is very serious, Joe," said Baumgartner as the capsule, designed to remain at 55 degrees Fahrenheit ascended in skies where temperatures were expected to plunge below -91.8 F (-67.8 C), according to the project's website.
"Sometimes it's getting foggy when I exhale. ... I do not feel heat."
Baumgartner's ascent into the stratosphere took about two-and-a-half hours.
The 850,000-cubic-metre plastic balloon, is about one-tenth the thickness of a Ziploc bag, or roughly as thin as a dry cleaner bag.
Baumgartner said he now wants to rescue people and inspire the next generation.
He said he has reached his limit with the record-breaking leap from the edge of the atmosphere and now aims to become a good helicopter pilot and fight fires.
"I want to inspire the next generation," he said.
"I would love in four years to be sitting in the same spot as Joe Kittinger and there's a young guy asking for advice because he wants to break my record."
The small group of people in New Zealand who engage in such extreme sports are simply in awe of Baumgartner's feat.
In his newly adopted Canterbury, South African Gary Bayer, a formation flying multiple world champion and one of international skydiving's most experienced coaches, said Baumgartner's achievement was "absolutely fantastic".
"Let's just call it skydiving's first steps on the moon," Bayer told TV ONE's Close Up.
In Auckland, Air Force squadron leader Seven Smith, New Zealand's unofficial high altitude record holder, jumped from 25,000 feet as part of the RNZAF's parachute testing programme in the 1980s
"That's impressive, 120,000 feet, that's a long way up," he told Close Up.
"One of the biggest risks he took was if he had a premature parachute opening where it had opened by accident at attitude, the speeds he was travelling at would probably have destroyed the parachute," Smith said.
Bayer said he would do a jump like Baumgartner's if he could.
"If I had the backing he had, the team he had, I speak for quite a few jumpers out there, they would too, taking nothing away from what he did. That took courage."
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