I have heard that a man can fall faster than the speed of sound, and survive, by jumping from 36,000 meters; a free fall that, it seems, lasts ten minutes after the jump. Is it true?
Can a man fall faster than the speed of sound?
Yes, almost certainly, though none have yet (7 Oct 2012) in any well-published verified account.
on Aug. 16, 1960, Capt. Kittinger jumped from a height of 102,800 feet, almost 20 miles above the earth. With only the small stabilizing chute deployed, Capt. Kittinger fell for 4 minutes, 36 seconds. He experienced temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (-70 degrees Celsius) and a maximum speed of 614 miles per hour. … The 28-foot main parachute did not open until Capt. Kittinger reached the much thicker atmosphere at 17,500 feet.
That is 274 m/s at some point during a descent from 31333 m to 5333 m altitude.
From this graph we can see that if you start at 36000 metres, when you have fallen 16000 metres to 20000 metres height, the speed of sound is 295 m/s. Kittinger's maximum speed was 274 m/s at unstated altitude. It seems plausible that someone might be able to travel 7.6% faster oriented head down with no stabilising chute.
Austrian Felix Baumgartner has become the first skydiver to go faster than the speed of sound, reaching a maximum velocity of 833.9mph (1,342km/h).
In jumping out of a balloon 128,100ft (24 miles; 39km) above New Mexico, the 43-year-old also smashed the record for the highest ever freefall.