Frenchman Plummeting 40 Kilometres From The Sky Will Break Sound Barrier, World Records

Michel Fournier is about to make the greatest leap of his, and anyone else's, life. On Sunday, the 64-year-old retired French army officer will fly almost 40 kms into the sky in a giant balloon, step out of a pressurised capsule and plunge headfirst towards the earth, soaring through the atmosphere for an estimated 15 minutes.

A lot can go wrong when you're trying to reach 40 kms up in the air. At above 12kms, there's no longer enough oxygen to breathe. At 19 kms up, the air pressure can cause blood to boil. Fournier will be taking the trip in a special space suit, but if it malfunctions, he'll be dead within seconds.

If he makes it, Fournier will set records for falling the longest, farthest and fastest of anyone in history. The fall will be the cumulation of 20 years of research and physical and emotional preparation. To pay for his training and equipment, Fournier has sold almost all his belongings and spent roughly US$20 million, mostly raised from private donations.

Fournier has insisted that he's not free falling to break world records. And though the data collected from the jump could have ramifications on aerospace escape procedures, many argue that there is very little to be gained scientifically.

Rather, this experiment probably has its roots in something much more basic and instinctual, despite its decidedly high-tech makeup. Fournier is out to fulfil his all-too-human need to find and, hopefully, exceed his own limitations. [NYTimes and Le Grand Saut]