In January 2010, BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner unveiled Red Bull Stratos, a mission to the edge of the atmosphere and back down again. He’ll ascend by balloon and free fall back to Earth, breaking world records -- and the sound barrier -- and gathering unprecedented data for future space exploration.
It is the most daring and complex mission of its kind ever undertaken. After a delay of several months, Red Bull Stratos is finally about to take off.
Felix Baumgartner is planning to take a pressurized balloon gondola up 22 miles, the highest balloon flight ever, and then leap back to Earth. No one has ever before leapt from such a height. No parachute jump will have ever lasted so long. No man has ever broken the sound barrier in free fall.
Red Bull Stratos is following in the footsteps of Project Excelsior, when U.S. Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger (at right in photo above) jumped on Aug. 16, 1960 from a height of 19 miles and barely lived to tell the tale. Kittinger is now Baumgartner’s mentor, the only man alive who can offer advice to the Austrian on a mission where the slightest error could cost him his life.
"As soon as the visor closes there’s this nightmarish silence and loneliness." -Felix Baumgartner
The project is taking its participants far beyond their comfort zones. The team has had to contend with more challenges than it could have foreseen since launching Red Bull Stratos two years ago. For a short time, the project was on the verge of collapsing.
But now they’re ready to get off the ground. Over the next few months, The Red Bulletin will follow Baumgartner until his record-breaking jump. We begin with a disarming interview with the veteran BASE jumper.
Part 1: Interview with Felix Baumgartner
Before he ascends 22 miles into the stratosphere and free falls back to Earth in spectacular, record-breaking fashion, the BASE jumper was forced to face his own demons. At the high point of his life thus far, he hit an all-time low.
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 my 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, your perceptions are restricted. As soon as the visor closes there’s this nightmarish silence and loneliness: The suit signifies imprisonment. We’d never thought 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 mypast exploits, all the extreme things I’ve done in my career, nobody would have ever guessed that simply wearing a space suit would threaten the mission -- me included. In the end, it turned into panic attacks.
Not at all. When it came to the crucial pressure test at minus-76 degrees Fahrenheit, under real conditions with pressure and altitude simulated, and surrounded by cameras, air force personnel, and scientists, I realized I 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. Until 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 now 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 ergometer sessions. The problem had to be solved another way.
And that was?
Through Mike Gervais, an American psychologist [director of performance psychology, Pinnacle Performance Center at D.I.S.C., in Southern California], who stripped me down and gave me a ‘toolbox’ of psychological tools that allowed me to learn how to master the situation.
Within two weeks he coached me from 30 minutes of staying in the suit to ‘I don’t care how long I wear this thing!’ This was my greatest victory to date: I’d found the limit that I’d been looking for my whole career. No Channel flight, no cave, no Jesus statue achieved what that suit did down here at ground level. And with Mike I overcame this hurdle and -- as banal as it may sound -- I’m stronger than ever before.
So how did he do it?
With heavy artillery! Mike forced me to imagine a son and trying to explain to him what Red Bull Stratos means to me. It was a tough road, but I’ll do anything if it serves my purpose. When I put the helmet on I had to describe my mental state every three minutes, on a scale of 1, which is totally relaxed, to 10, panic. At the same time I wore a heart rate monitor. The interesting thing about this was that my heart rate remained totally constant when I was between 3 and 8 on the scale. That was important to know.
"We’re standing in the limelight here, with the world watching -- there’s no room for error."
Next, we analyzed my routines: I’d always lost my appetite the day before putting on the suit, and this escalated into a nice little panic on the way out to our Mission Director Art Thompson. Mike used to work with a martial arts guy who regularly spiraled downwards on the drive to the arena; for him, the fight was already lost before the first hit. He identified these mechanisms and gave me tools which helped me to jump off the negative thought train before it had left the station.
People can only think one thought at a time. You can jump very quickly from one thought to another, but per moment only one can be processed. So when I have a bad thought, I have to mentally exit my helmet. So, for example, I’ll spell words backwards. Nothing mysterious, just simple tools that will actually help you your whole life long.
Mike also forced me to think things through to the end: what happens when someone shackles me into my suit and I freak out? I thought I would lash out, fall into a screaming fit, and end up suffering a heart attack. Wrong: when your ‘alarm reservoir’ is exhausted, you become quieter and capable of thinking logically again. So knowing the storm will pass and that things get better gives me confidence and allows me to relax a little.
Has this experience made you more humble?
Not really. Perhaps more understanding of others’ weaknesses. Now, with my new insights, I’m more tolerant when other people are also not immortal or perfect. I’d never felt before that I needed outside help with my projects, either.
Do you feel differently, now, about Red Bull Stratos, than you did before?
My respect has increased. A couple of privateers, a BASE jumper, a soft drink company and a few daredevils got involved in the Air Force and NASA business with the belief that in three, maximum five years, we could do something that took them decades to achieve. But we were naive. We thought we could buy a capsule, three balloons, a suit, and that I would just throw myself down and we’d write history. Wrong. It’s much bigger than that.
We’re not competing against Ferrari or McLaren, and we’re not up against NASA or the Air Force. We’re practicing science. We’re pioneers, constantly entering new territory. Our project is so huge and there are things happening on so many different levels and each of them not only has to work individually, but also in conjunction with all the other levels. When one cog breaks in a clock, the whole mechanism stops.
Like when the lawyers get involved…
In December 2010 I’d stocked my toolbox, all the testing had gone well, and the project could have taken off again. Then came the legal case. Problem solved but project halted. And then… project ended! After receiving the call to tell me it was all off, I drove around aimlessly for four hours. Bruce Springsteen was playing on the radio, I remember. I’d been in boot camp for a month and now the war was over without even a single shot being fired. Twice in quick succession my feet had been yanked out from under me.
What did you do?
I could have drowned in self-pity, but instead I threw myself into my second field of expertise, flying helicopters. I worked as a professional pilot, earning seven helicopter ratings, doing mountain training, and notching up hours and hours of flying time. And I never gave up on the project. I knew that someday I would swap my pilot’s overalls for the space suit again.
How did everyone around you react to the red light on the project?
It was interesting how many people came out with their real opinion -- even my own mother: ‘actually we’re relieved you’re not jumping.’ I told her she shouldn’t get used to the idea that Red Bull Stratos was dead. It was still clear to me that one day I’d float up, climb out of the capsule, and hurtle down to earth, breaking the sound barrier on the way.
Switching from professional pilot to ‘stratonaut’: how hard was that?
Easy! I’d mentally stored the space suit away in a box, and now I’ve unpacked it again.
Was there a positive aspect to the break?
Definitely. It allowed us to restructure a couple of procedures, and now there’s a different spirit. In the meantime we regularly reach our interim goals, which is very different from when we started. Obviously we still have screw-ups, but we learn from them and put them into practice.
To give you one example: During the first unmanned test flight, it was important that the balloon took off no later than 7:30 a.m., before the wind got up. The first time, the balloon company packed the balloon into the case incorrectly. Fixing it took 25 minutes, and when we eventually got airborne at 8 a.m., the wind took our balloon. This giant, which had hovered for a couple of minutes, died right before our eyes. It’s not the big things that break the camel’s back, but the little things that no one thinks about.
And that’s what can damage morale.
Correct. I want a red rotating beacon in the command center and as soon as I’m in my suit the light flashes. That means no more coffee drinking, no more texting. Safety comes from repetition -- every elite unit drills its soldiers until every move can be done blindfolded. Once the mission is underway, there are enough factors that can’t be influenced. But only you can influence yourself. We’re standing in the limelight here, with the world watching -- there’s no room for error.
When you think about the big day, what do you picture in your mind?
Extreme discipline and perfection. When you know the camera is on you, you even clean your teeth differently. The pressure is huge, and we have to not only endure it but excel. We’re entering a test, and we’re excellently prepared. But it’s never going to be a fun day -- I’m risking my life, after all.
As far as is possible, I’ll try to grasp the sheer irrevocability of the moment: ‘I’ll never come back up here; I’ll never put on the suit again; never again will I climb into the capsule; we’ll never work this way as a team again.’ There are examples where Olympic winners stand on the podium and feel disappointment. Because they had imagined this moment, for which they had trained so many years, to be more beautiful. I’ll try to avoid this by enjoying the journey.
What do you think you’ll be doing a year from now?
Either I won’t be able to leave my house because I’ve disappointed everyone, or because of the huge crowds outside. Both are possible. I’d like to celebrate Christmas 2012 with my team: Joe Kittinger is 83 years old; the average age of my team is 70. This is the family with whom I’ve spent the past five years, and this family won’t be around much longer -- you don’t have to be clairvoyant to realize this. I want to rent a house where we put up a Christmas tree and Joe’s wife cooks a turkey, we hold hands around the table and thank God that our mission together went well and we’re all still alive. I would like that.
And if not?
Then it’s very likely I’ll have a problem. The end of a career without this jump would be like a house without a door. I’ve been turning my ideas and visions into reality for 25 years, and I believe I’ll also achieve my last great sporting goal.
Check out the March 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands February 14) for more. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.