By Zelie Pollon
ROSWELL, New Mexico (Reuters) - An Austrian daredevil leapt into the stratosphere from a balloon hovering near the edge of space 24 miles above Earth on Sunday, 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 11-by-8-foot (3.3-by-2.4 meter) 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 pressurized capsule by going through a checklist of 40 items with project adviser Joe Kittinger, holder of a 19-mile high 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 2 1/2 hours.
The 30 million-cubic-foot (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.
(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Doina Chiacu)
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