By JUAN CARLOS LLORCA
ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) - Extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner jumped from a balloon 24 miles above the Earth on Sunday in a death-defying free fall that made him the world's first supersonic skydiver.
Baumgartner climbed into the stratosphere in a pressurized capsule carried by a helium balloon and then jumped into a near vacuum at about 128,000 feet -- more than 24 miles.
The jump lasted just under 10 minutes, and Baumgartner expected to hit a speed of 690 mph before activating his parachute.
The successful jump marks the end of a five-year road for Baumgartner, a record-setting high-altitude jumper, but it is also 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.
He lifted his arms in victory shortly after landing, sending off loud cheers from onlookers and friends inside the mission's control center in Roswell, N.M.
It wasn't immediately certain whether he had broken the speed of sound during his free-fall, which was one of the goals of the mission. A few hours after the jump, officials confirmed he did accomplish that feat.
Baumgartner made the ascent with a 55-story, ultra-thin helium balloon that took nearly three hours to climb into the stratosphere. In doing so, he set the record for the highest-ever manned balloon voyage.
At Baumgartner's insistence, some 30 cameras recorded the event. While it had been pegged as a live broadcast, it was actually under a 20-second delay.
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.
Baumgartner's team included Joe Kittinger, the man who first attempted to break the sound barrier from 19.5 miles in 1960. With Kittinger inside mission control Sunday, the two men could be heard going over technical details as the launch began.
"You are right on the button, keep it right there," Kittinger told Baumgartner.
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 would 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. 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.
The energy drink maker Red Bull, which sponsored the feat, promoted a live Internet stream of the event from nearly 30 cameras on the capsule, the ground and a helicopter.
But the jump from the stratosphere was more than just a stunt. It was also to provide scientists with valuable information for next-generation spacesuits and techniques that could help astronauts survive accidents.
Before the jump, his medical director Dr. Jonathan Clark, a NASA space shuttle crew surgeon who lost his wife, Laurel Clark, in the 2003 Columbia accident, said no one knows what happens to a body when it breaks the sound barrier.
"That is really the scientific essence of this mission," said Clark, who is dedicated to improving astronauts' chances of survival in a high-altitude disaster.
Clark, who was also Baumgartner's medical director, told reporters he expected the pressurized spacesuit to protect him from the shock waves of breaking the sound barrier. Now that it is clear the suit held up, NASA may certify a new generation of spacesuits for protecting astronauts and provide an escape option from spacecraft at 120,000 feet.
Baumgartner now plans to settle down with his girlfriend and fly helicopters on mountain rescue and firefighting missions in the U.S. and Austria.