Not content with being considered the world’s best BASE jumper, Felix Baumgartner is preparing to break four world records – and the sound barrier – by jumping from an altitude of 120,000 ft (36.5km) as part of Red Bull Stratos.
Where did you get this idea from?
I got several offers from some companies many years ago, with the same idea. They submitted some studies, but they were only on paper and I didn’t find any perceptible move to turn those ideas into reality. I didn’t feel they were serious so I ignored it. It happened with many other companies, and then the right offer came from partners who know the importance of flying and working in space. Those were Red Bull Stratos and a team of researchers from NASA. To jump and break the sound barrier will not be a mere record breaking experience in the Guiness Book of Records or another extreme event that ends once the mission is accomplished. This is an experience that will simulate the first human landing on the moon, and will benefit scientific research.
'The longest time I’ve spent inside the suit with the front part of the helmet closed, is 3 hours, and to be honest, it was horrible!'
Many describe the project as crazy. Have you ever thought that jumping from a 120,000ft (36.5km) altitude could be fatal?
No. if you look at all the details, the effort put in this project, and to what extent we will make it safe… it looks so far from being crazy. We have a team of leading minds in all aspects of science and technology, people who are highly professional and cultivated such as Dr. Johnathan Clark, surgeon and scientist at NASA. A large team of researchers are behind this project. They have studied and set all means of safety and security during the leap, and taken all necessary precautions in case the pressure suit I will be wearing gets damaged. Considering this, we cannot describe the experience as crazy, but yes, I have thought about my life, and I could die in my sleep or at any time.
Did you discuss the issue with your family?
Yes and my mum did not feel good about it and expressed her worries, but then, she accepted it. They are all used to these things. Years ago, when I started parachute jumping at 16, they were not happy about it but they discovered that I was doing it the safe way. The same happened when I started BASE jumping. Yes, this time is more than just flying into space, but all the safety measures provided made them accept the idea.
When do you expect to do this adventure?
We are facing some trouble during the trials right now. We are however trying to overcome them real fast so we can perform the jump this year, as previously planned. We haven’t announced a date yet because we are still dealing with some technical issues.
What are your safety measures?
For the team, safety comes first, so the experience goes as planned. First, we have our pressure suit. We are working on improving its capacity of tolerating altitudes exceeding 65,000 ft (19.8km) because it is important to consider that liquids in the human body might reach the point of ebullition if the landing is too fast from such a high altitude. Therefore, we need a special type of pressure suit.
These suits also provide you with the oxygen you need and preserves your body temperature; and in case any damage occurs to the suit during landing, it preserves the natural energy level of the body. It also contains two emergency parachutes that open automatically in case of spiral circulation, which might happen when landing at such a high speed related to acceleration time because of the earth’s gravity, as human skills alone won’t be enough.
What about breathing before the jump?
We need two hours of “pre-breathing” of oxygen to evacuate all the nitrogen from the blood and go up and jump, because being inside the pressure suits for a long period is very challenging. I have had the experience, and the longest time I’ve spent inside the suit with the front part of the helmet closed, is 3 hours, and to be honest, it was horrible!
Do you measure the dangers of this step?
I always feel the danger because you might always be subject to an unexpected or emergency event. One single mistake might cause a real catastrophe. You are worried about being where humans shouldn’t be. When you jump at 120,000 ft (36.5km) altitude, you will start at about 690 mph and then reach 1,000 mph when you get closer to gravity. Just thinking of this speed makes you worried and terrified. Bottom line is, when you face the unknown, you are worried no doubt.
What will cross your minds during the jump?
I don’t know what will cross my mind at that moment because I haven’t jumped yet, but I am aware that I will be completely focused on accomplishing the mission successfully, and I might not have the time to think about anything else. You are supposed to concentrate only on what’s around you.
'I will wait for the results of my jump and its benefits for humanity'
Have you made trial jumps?
I performed two trials from 25,000 ft (7.6km), and we will move to higher altitudes progressively until we reach the final jump, which we hope will be performed during the current year. The trial jumps were good but they revealed some issues regarding the limited motion inside the pressure suit as well as the field of vision. For example, they had to develop a new system to move the front pack to the side so I could see the landing area. They also had to amend the parachute handles so they can be differentiated. During one of the trial jumps, I was confused between both handles and was pulling the wrong one at the landing. Now you can tell the difference by their feel. The team also fixed mirrors on the gloves so I have better vision. These are details that can be life-threatening if you do not pay attention to them.
We also tried the pressure room many times. It allows you to discover the atmosphere you will be facing in space before jumping. We tested the pressure suit and the way of moving inside it. We found that pressure will affect the eyes directly and negatively, which makes it really difficult to see things inside the suit.
Moreover, the suit is uncomfortable and I'll train to get used to it.
Despite all those difficulties and surrounding dangers, I am absolutely confident of our success because the team has got the best space experts.
Will you be in contact with the team during the jump?
Certainly. We have a communication centre on earth with the man who previously attempted the jump in 1960, at 102,800 ft (31.3km), former US Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger. He helped open the door for space exploration. We also have a medical team to monitor all body changes second by second. Every single person in the centre on earth will be directly connected to what is happening in space, and this is highly important because any defect identified during the first seconds could be repaired immediately for as we previously said, safety comes first.
Are you performing this jump for a specific goal?
I will achieve two things: first of all are world records because if we succeed, I will be the first man to jump at that altitude and the first to break the sound barrier with his body. My second goal is to provide valuable scientific data to space researchers.
This means that you will benefit space tourism!
Yes, we will offer important data about human conditions outside the stratosphere, and these researches are important in terms of space tourism.
Many people wonder about the benefits of traveling to the moon and think there is no need to. But the truth is, jumping in space might be very important as to gathering positive data for human beings, whether regarding satellites or navigation systems. It will also benefit aviation safety and enhance the possibility of human journeys to space.
If you succeed, what are your future plans?
If this mission is successful I will have attained all my ambitions, mainly as I am 41 and this is the highest altitude I can think of. When I was younger, I had two dreams: to fly into space and to be a pilot. My first dream came true when I was 16 and I became a pilot in my 20s, so I do not think that I will be performing such adventures anymore. I will wait for the results of my jump and its benefits for humanity.
Felix was speaking to Asharq Al Awsat.