10.09.12

Felix Baumgartner Talks Space Jump, Red Bull’s ‘Stratos,’ Kittinger’s Record, and More

It’s not Superman flying through the atmosphere—it’s Felix Baumgartner, the man expected to undertake a 23-mile space jump on Tuesday (weather permitting, that is). Pawel Szaniawski talks to the extreme athlete about the stunt, its purpose, and what it will feel like to break the sound barrier.

This is not something you see every day: extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner will undertake a 23-mile free fall into southeastern New Mexico on Tuesday—if the weather permits it. Baumgartner has spent five years training, and he is hoping to take off in a 55-story helium balloon headed to the stratosphere on Oct. 9, after weather pushed the jump back by a day. It will take him three hours to reach 120,000 feet. From that height, his jump is expected to last about 10 minutes and he will reach speeds of 690 mph. Pawel Szaniawski interviews the daredevil.

Newsweek: What records are you going to beat during this jump?

Felix Baumgartner: The primary objective of Red Bull Stratos is to deliver valuable information for medical and scientific advancement, and so it’s impossible to quantify the overall mission in terms of numbers. However, the records that we hope to achieve as a result of the final jump include the first human in history to break the speed of sound in free fall; altitude record for free fall; altitude record for manned balloon flight; and longest free fall.

Record holder Joe Kittinger jumped from 102,800 feet in 1960. You will go 18,000 feet higher. How big technological advantage do you have compared to Joe Kittinger's mission half a century ago?

Well, a lot has changed since Joe’s jump! But one thing that hasn’t changed is the environment. The stratosphere is a hostile place. And jumping from a higher altitude makes the difficulties all the greater, so we need to make use of the latest technology and even develop our own—like enhancements we’ve made to increase mobility in my pressure suit. To give you just one example of the added challenge we’re facing: to ascend just, as you say, about 18,000 feet higher than Joe, I’ll need to use a balloon that’s ten times larger than his balloon. His balloon had a capacity of 3 million cubic feet, and mine will have a capacity of 30 million cubic feet: at launch it will be as tall as a 55-story building.

What will be the critical moment of this mission?

There will be dangers from launch to landing. If the balloon failed in the first 600 meters of the ascent, there wouldn’t be time to get out of the capsule and deploy a parachute. (Actually, I think the guys in Mission Control hold their breath a little bit until the balloon clears 1,200 meters.) Up in the stratosphere, there’s too little oxygen to breathe, and the pressure is so low that without protection my blood would boil with vapor bubbles. In free fall, I could go into a spin that might make me unconscious or cause my eyes or brain to hemorrhage. Fortunately, the program incorporates safeguards to protect me from the dangers we can anticipate. But the biggest unknown is what happens when the human body breaks the speed of sound, so I think that will be the critical moment. The air is so thin that the team doesn’t expect I’ll experience any significant effects from shock waves, but because no one has ever done this before, we can’t be certain. If we can demonstrate that it's possible to break the speed of sound in free fall, this could be a truly valuable step toward finding ways for astronauts to bail out in emergency situations.

And, well before I jump, I’ll need to maintain sharp focus throughout the hours of ascent. I really can’t afford to let my attention wander at any point.

Does this jump push the limits of the human body?

Yes, both mentally and physically. As I mentioned above, we can’t be certain about what I will experience in breaking the sound barrier. But we do know that endurance is the key to the whole mission. There will be many physical challenges, from extreme cold to the difficulties of skydiving in a pressurized suit that limits my movements and my peripheral vision. (Even the simple task of grasping an object is exponentially more difficult in a pressure suit.) And well before I jump, I’ll need to maintain sharp focus throughout the hours of ascent. I really can’t afford to let my attention wander at any point.

What drives you to take such risks as Red Bull Stratos mission?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been inspired by astronauts and test pilots. And everyone in the aerospace and skydiving community knows about Joe Kittinger’s jump in 1960—it’s legendary. So it’s always been in the back of my mind that I’d like to try and break these longstanding records and make a contribution to aerospace research.

What crazy things you did you are the most proud of?

Well, to me, my past accomplishments weren’t crazy. They required a lot of skill and careful planning. I think that in addition to the two records I set for BASE jumps from the highest building, some of the projects that stand out in people’s minds were my jump from the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, because the setting was so spectacular and the jump from just 95 feet required split-second timing, and my jump into Mamet Cave in Croatia, which was 623 feet into darkness. My free-fall crossing of the English Channel with a carbon wing in 2003 was definitely the most complex and technically challenging project I had ever taken on before Red Bull Stratos. But I'm always looking for a new challenge, and none of those projects compares with what we expect I'll be attempting in October. This will be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me.