In January 2010, Felix Baumgartner unveiled Red Bull Stratos, a mission to the edge of the space and back again. He’ll ascend by balloon and free fall back to Earth, breaking world records and becoming the first person to break the sound barrier without a machine. After a delay of several months, this daring and complex adventure is finally ready for take-off.
Felix Baumgartner wants to take his pressurised balloon gondola to 36km, the highest balloon flight ever, and then leap back to Earth. No one has ever leapt from such a height before. No parachute jump will have ever lasted so long. No man has ever previously broken the sound barrier in free fall.
Red Bull Stratos is following in the footsteps of Project Excelsior, which saw Colonel Joe Kittinger of the US Air Force jump from 31km on August 16, 1960. Kittinger is now Baumgartner’s mentor, the only man alive who can offer advice on a mission where the slightest error in procedure could prove fatal.
Red Bull Stratos is taking all its participants way beyond their comfort zones. Since the project was announced two years ago, the team has had to contend with more challenges than it could ever have foreseen. For a short time, the project appeared to be on the point of collapse.
But now Red Bull Stratos is about to get off the ground. The Red Bulletin will follow Baumgartner and his team until his record-breaking jump. This month, Part One of our story begins with a disarming interview with Baumgartner and a profile of the pioneering Kittinger.
Part 1. Interview Felix Baumgartner. Salzburg, Austria.
‘I couldn’t do it. my head was letting me down’
Before ascending into the stratosphere and free falling back to Earth in spectacular, record-breaking fashion, the Austrian BASE-jumper, 42, had to face his demons. At the high point of his life thus far, he hit an all-time low.
The Red Bulletin: All went quiet on Red Bull Stratos for nine months. What was going on behind the scenes?
Felix Baumgartner: Let’s go back to the time before the project was stopped because of a lawsuit. In December 2010, we carried out the last major tests with the space suit and it was clear to me that I had a problem – one I never thought I’d have – with my psyche. I had trouble putting on the space suit and it got worse and worse. I could barely stand a couple of minutes in it.
Could you describe the symptoms?
The idea was that the suit should feel like a second skin, but it’ll never be like that. Your movements and your perceptions are restricted. As soon as the visor closes there’s this nightmarish silence and loneliness – the suit signifies imprisonment. We hadn’t originally conceived of a test that confined me in the suit for five hours – that’s how long the entire mission should take – with the visor closed. After all my past exploits, all the extreme things I’ve done in my career, no one would have ever guessed that simply wearing a space suit would threaten the mission, me included. In the end, the symptoms developed into panic attacks.
No at all. When it came to the crucial pressure test at -60°C, under real conditions with pressure and altitude simulated, and surrounded by cameras, air force personnel and scientists, I realised I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see a way around this problem. I’d easily mastered what seemed to be huge obstacles, like free fall in a pressure suit, but now my own head was letting me down. Instead of driving to Brooks [The Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering in San Antonio, Texas] to go testing, I drove to the airport and hightailed it out of America. I wept on the phone. It was the worst moment of my life. To that point I’d always known how to solve all my own problems. This time, in front of everyone, I’d found my limit.
Clearly, you’ve since pushed it higher.
We tried several things in training because from a medical standpoint a high basic fitness would also improve my stress resistance. But really, I mean… for 20 years I’ve done the most extreme BASE jumps, I’ve flown over the English Channel [in a wing suit], I’ve shown my stress resistance without hours of exercise bike sessions. The problem had to be solved another way.
Read the full interview and more about "Mission Stratos" in February's issue of The Red Bulletin.