Felix Baumgartner will throw himself from the edge of space into a 36km freefall that will break the speed of sound. We just had to ask: why?
“This has been my dream since I was a boy,” says Baumgartner, 40, “since I learnt about Joe Kittinger’s incredible achievement.”
Kittinger made aerospace history in 1960 when he jumped to earth from 102,800ft. Fifty years on, Baumgartner plans to raise the stakes by leaping from 120,000ft. He presented the idea to Red Bull (his long-term sponsors) in 2005 and, naturally, they loved it. And so “Red Bull Stratos” was born. Together, they set about recruiting a stellar team of engineers, former NASA scientists and aerospace veterans (including Kittinger) to take Baumgartner where no man has been before.
“You need to love what you’ve been taught to fear,” says Felix Baumgartner, the man who has leapt from the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro, hurled himself from the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, and plunged into a 600ft-deep cave in complete darkness in Croatia. “Fear is good because it keeps you sharp.”
Baumgartner, who has “Born to Fly” tattooed on his arm, will ascend to the edge of space in a pressurised capsule attached to a helium balloon. Launching into an epic skydive, the Austrian will plunge headfirst towards Earth at supersonic speeds, before finally releasing his parachute after freefalling for over 5 minutes. Falling faster and further than any skydiver in history if successful, he’ll become the first human to break the speed of sound. (That’s 1236km/h, in case you were wondering.)
ONE HUGE STEP FOR MAN
A former member of Austria’s special forces, Baumgartner is a veteran of some 2500 jumps. Highly qualified for the job, this is the same man who skydived across the English Channel in 2003, again with the help of Red Bull, who (quite literally) gave him wings. So he’s used to the unusual. But this is a jump unlike any other – one that will send him hurtling to earth like
a comet. How exactly do you train for something like that?
“Being physically fit is vital to the success of Red Bull Stratos,” Baumgartner says. “I’m working hard to be in the best shape of my life.” Maintaining physical fitness has always been high on his agenda, having trained as a paratrooper with the Austrian military. Climbing, boxing and motocross are also hobbies of his, alongside BASE jumping, but being in his physical prime is paramount for a jump of this magnitude.
His mobility will be limited within the vacuum that the stratosphere creates, so he has been conditioning his body to move inside the suit. He also needs to be able to cope with the freefall and the point at which he’ll hit Mach 1.0, which is around 1,110km/h. (In comparison, a skydiver falling in the standard, belly-down position will reach a top speed of 193km/h). Preparing for such conditions means that training is a constant process of evaluation and assessment.
“Control of my body position is critical, and much more difficult than in a typical skydive,” he says, “so my trainer Michael Mayrhofer is pushing me to my physical limits in the gym, with a very strict and intense plan that involves plenty of endurance training.” A healthy diet and fine-tuning of his physical strength are also vital. But surely one of the biggest questions is how he will prepare mentally? “Ultimately, I am driven by my determination to succeed.”
A SPACE ODYSSEY
“The edge of space is an incredibly hostile environment – one that’s intolerant of mistakes,” says Baumgartner, who will spend two hours breathing pure oxygen prior to the launch to flush nitrogen out of his body and prevent decompression sickness taking hold.
To get a gauge on just how high he’ll be ascending, the proposed launch altitude is a staggering 28km higher than the summit of Everest. He’ll be wearing a pressurised astronaut suit, which will protect him from a number of very real dangers, including solar radiation, oxygen deprivation and temperatures as low as minus 56˚C. Air pressure is so low in the stratosphere that without the suit, it would cause his blood to bubble, in the same way a soft drink does when the lid is removed.
Smashing through the sound barrier (a threshold which has torn planes to shreds) should happen around 35 seconds after he jumps. Breaking the barrier is likely to cause a sonic boom that would deafen him without the space suit. As this is the first attempt, nobody knows what else may happen to his body. But for Baumgartner, it is the potential lack of control that worries him the most.
“We don’t know exactly what my body will experience when breaking through the sound barrier, or whether the skydiving skills I’ve acquired over the years will even work at supersonic speed,” he says. The biggest danger of the jump is that Baumgartner will fall into an uncontrollable “flat spin” and pass out mid-jump. “If I do enter a flat spin, it could prove fatal,” he says. And that is exactly what happened to Kittinger on his first attempt – sending him spinning wildly out of control and losing consciousness while his parachute lines wrapped around his neck. It was only the automatic reserve chute that
THE FINAL FRONTIER
As one of most respected professional BASE jumpers and skydivers in the world, Baumgartner has experience with technical jumps that is unsurpassed. Speaking of his freefall “flight” across the English Channel aided by a specially designed carbon wing, he says: “It had to be planned meticulously. I got up to 360km/h but it felt like nothing at that height. All I could see were clouds. I was in freefall for six and half minutes – it felt like an eternity.”
It’s easy to see how Baumgartner has earned himself the nickname “God of the Skies”, but he freely admits that Red Bull Stratos is his most audacious project yet. If successful, it will be a landmark achievement, breaking four world records including altitude record for freefall, distance record for longest freefall, speed record for fastest freefall by breaking the speed of sound with the human body, and altitude record for the highest manned balloon flight.
Yet the ever-capable Baumgartner isn’t the only madcap attempting the jump from space. Frenchman Michel Fournier, 64, has been trying to smash Kittinger’s record for years and sold half of his belongings to finance it. British stuntman Steve Truglia, 49, is also giving it a go, but his funding is not looking good.
As a result of the competition, the date for Baumgartner’s jump is a closely guarded secret. However, the launch location is in North America, which has been selected for its suitable terrain and abundance of local experts.
Gearing up for the big jump, you have to wonder what Baumgartner’s friends and family think? “Those close to me recognise that it’s what I do,” he says. “We’ve discussed the risks but no one, not even my family, has tried to discourage me. I guess it’s a sign of their love that they know what drives me.”
Stretching the boundaries of human potential, Felix Baumgartner will see the world as no man has seen it before. Making history, he will leave a remarkable legacy behind him. “It will be a record for all eternity. As such, a piece of me will become immortal.”