By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph by Luke Aikins/Red Bull Photofiles
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Felix Baumgartner loves going to high places and jumping off. Whether it’s airplanes, or cliffs, or the top of the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, the 41-year-old Austrian has thrown himself off of it with a parachute and lived to tell the tale. Pretty simple, right? Not if said “high place” is the stratosphere—where he plans to be when he attempts the highest skydive in history sometime in the next couple of months.
The successful completion of the jump (i.e. Baumgartner makes to the ground alive) is the main goal of the Red Bull Stratos Project. The collaboration, which is part “new space” research mission and part extreme sports market branding initiative, aims to take “Fearless Felix” to 120,000 feet above the Earth’s surface in a specially modified helium balloon and then drop him earthward. If all goes according to plan, Stratos researchers hope to gain valuable information on high-altitude technology. And Baumgartner hopes to become the first skydiver to break the speed of sound.
The last and only person to survive jumps from anywhere near the proposed altitude of the Stratos missions was retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger. In 1959 and 1960, he made a series of three jumps from different altitudes—76,400, 74,700, and 102,800 feet—that nearly killed him but set a standard for high-altitude sky diving that has lasted until today. Adventure caught up with the man who could be Kittinger’s successor in order to talk about risk, team work, and the complications of jumping from 120,000 feet.
Adventure: How did you get into sky diving?
Even as a little boy, I liked to climb trees and be up high, and I fantasized about skydiving and flying helicopters. As soon as I turned 16—which is the legal age for skydiving in Austria—I made my way to the local club and jumped. From the first second, I knew skydiving was for me. Then in the mid-1990s, just when I thought I had gone as far as I could with traditional skydiving, I discovered BASE jumping, which has expanded my skills even further.
A lot of people view a mission like this as suicidal. Explain what makes you want to jump out of a hot air balloon 120,000 feet above earth and try to reach supersonic speeds in free fall.
I love a challenge. And I don’t think this mission is suicidal. It’s true that several people have died attempting to jump from the edge of space, and I have huge respect for all those who have tried. But our team of experts and consultants ranks among the very best in the world, and they were carefully selected to anticipate and manage each detail along the way. Long-term preparation, the best equipment, and the most innovative technology—not to mention our combined years of training on some of the most elite missions the world has known—make this mission achievable and minimize the risks as much as possible. If I can break the sound barrier, just imagine the value this mission could have for future human flight.
Your survival depend on how well members of your team do their jobs. Is it hard to trust your life to a lot of people that you don’t know very well?
Actually, over the months and years it has taken to develop this mission, I’ve gotten to know most of the team quite well! But you’re right in that I’m accustomed to doing BASE jumps where I’m fairly self-reliant – I’ve never had to depend on so much technology. I’m very grateful for the incredible team of experts who are enabling me to realize my dream. And at the same time, I know that when I’m standing outside that capsule at 120,000 feet, it will be up to me alone to bring all our preparations to a successful result.
From the outside, jumping out of a balloon and pulling a rip-cord seems pretty simple. Can you describe the training and preparations that go into a jump like this?
Everything is complicated by the extreme altitude of 120,000 feet—the upper reaches of the stratosphere. The hazards we know about include temperatures far below zero, too little oxygen for survival, a tendency to spin uncontrollably, and air pressure so low that it is nearly a vacuum. Unpredictable factors compounding all that include the potential for sudden changes in air pressure and instability as I approach supersonic speed.
For the team generally, preparation has involved nearly endless challenges, from modifying standard space suit design to resourcing circuit breakers that can tolerate extreme conditions (for the capsule). Plus this is no recreational balloon: to take our payload to altitude, we have to use a scientific-grade helium balloon with a 30-million-cubic-foot capacity. Pulling the rip cord isn’t simple either: even the handles of my parachute rig had to be changed so that I can reach them easily and tell them apart despite limited vision in my helmet and the bulkiness of my suit and gloves. This is much more like preparing for a space mission than like getting ready for any kind of skydive I’ve ever attempted.
For me personally, this mission has meant getting my balloon license. I’ve changed my workout routine to focus more on cardio than ever before. I’ve spent hours and hours studying the capsule layout and all flight procedures. And all of us are following a multi-stage test program, ranging from indoor tests in wind tunnels and low-pressure chambers to jumps from progressively higher altitudes. We strongly believe this multi-stage strategy is the best way to produce a successful outcome.
What is the hardest part of your job?
This always surprises people, but the team tells me that on the day of the Red Bull Stratos mission, the part of my job that will probably require the most physical effort will be opening the capsule door, standing up, and stepping out onto the ledge. That’s because in a fully pressurized space suit, even small motions are exceptionally difficult—not only will I be wearing over 100 pounds of gear, but the pressure of the suit at 3.5 pounds per square inch makes it incredibly stiff and provides strong resistance to movement.
Are you nervous?
Although I always say that the air is where I’m at home—and it’s true—in his extreme situation I think the moment that I take off from the ground will be more difficult mentally than the jump off the capsule at altitude. Every minute I’m going up, I’ll be going away from my parents, my girlfriend, the medical care I’ll need if anything goes wrong…. When I step off the capsule I’ll be coming back to all the things that matter. That mindset makes the jump easier.
So how do you mentally prepare for those kinds of anxieties?
I think my mental state is guided by the fact that I’m really determined to succeed in the mission—like I’ve said, this is something I have literally dreamed about since I was a young boy. Staying focused will be extremely important. For that reason I constantly review the capsule layout, checklists and procedures so that making the proper response will be second nature in any situation.
Does you family worry about the mission?
I’m not married, but I do have a girlfriend, and yes, we’ve discussed the mission for many days and nights; but no one has tried to discourage me. Of course my mother worries—that’s what mothers do–but she’s also excited for me. My friends and family know what drives me, and their support is a sign of their love.
Given the inherent danger of what you do, how do you deal with the constant threat of death? Do you feel that you are ready to die?
I know that I can die undertaking the kinds of jumps that I do. When I was ready to BASE jump from the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil, only 95 feet from the ground, it crossed my mind that in less than three seconds I could cease to exist. But I don’t have a death wish. I wouldn’t even say that I’m a thrill seeker or adrenaline junkie. I’m a person who likes a challenge. Once I set a goal, I do everything to reach it. I’m very thorough in assessing the risk in all of my projects and then plan them down to the tiniest detail.
The way I have to approach Red Bull Stratos is to be realistic. Risk is OK as long as you do your homework and as long as you have the right equipment and skill set.