For decades Kittinger has been pursued by people who wanted to repeat his endeavor and were thus eager to benefit from his experience. Although he has had more than 20 such requests, Kittinger turned every one down. Many of them, he recalls, were just after a quick buzz, poorly prepared, or simply ill-equipped.
American adventurer Nicholas Piantanida probably came closer than anyone else to Kittinger's record. In 1966 his balloon climbed to 37,000 meters (123,500 feet), but he couldn't jump out of the gondola because of problems with his oxygen supply. On his next attempt, Piantanida's helmet or pressure suit failed about halfway into his ascent. By the time he could be brought down, he was in a coma from which he would never emerge.
High-altitude skydiving has enjoyed something of a revival over the last decade. Five people have joined the race into space: an Australian mining expert, a professional female pilot from the US, a Spaniard, a British stuntman and a retired French air force colonel.
The latter, Michel Fournier, was Baumgartner's biggest rival. But Fournier was also extremely unlucky. To finance his obsession, 66-year-old Fournier ended up selling his villa, his furniture, and his stamp and weapons collections. Because he was refused permission to jump in his native France, he trained in the wide open expanses of Saskatchewan in Canada. Before one of his attempts, his 300,000 helium balloon detached from the capsule, and flew off into the sky without him. He now pleads on his Web site for donations to help finance Le Grand Saut (the Big Jump), as his project is known.
Falling as a Full-time Job
Felix Baumgartner was late entering the fray. For years he'd tried his hand as a professional soldier, boxer, and motocross rider. But his greatest success was to come from risky stunts: BASE jumping off rocks, bridges, and the like. He has now turned falling into a full-time job.
In 1999 he dressed as a businessman to get into the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, then the world's tallest building, and jumped off wearing a suit and tie. Later that year he spent several nights hiding at the foot of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before finally getting an opportunity to shoot a rope over one of the famous figure's outstretched arms using a crossbow. He then climbed up, and as the sun began to rise, leapt off the hand of Jesus.
In 2003 Baumgartner strapped a pair of fiberglass wings to his back and freefell in a semi-controlled flight across the English Channel from England to France. Like so many of his other daredevil endeavors, this feat was sponsored by Red Bull, whose adverts claim its caffeine-rich soda "gives you wings."
Time and again Baumgartner has been arrested and fined. But he enjoyed playing the role of the perpetual troublemaker. It brought him a certain notoriety and wealth. He even splashed out on a sports car, although his mother back home in Austria continues to take care of his finances.
This time, however, Baumgartner's jump will be of a completely different order of magnitude. "If you want to break through the sound barrier, you can't afford to make any mistakes," he says.
'The Right Man to Break My Record'
Baumgartner's team has been preparing his great leap since 2007. He's had a spacesuit tailor-made by the same company that supplied the Apollo astronauts for their test flights. He's spent hours shivering in freezers at temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit), and he's leapt out of airplanes and off bungee cranes -- all filmed by BBC camera teams. Every element of his meticulous preparation increases the tension of this heroic story, and thereby increases his marketability. And that in turn attracts sponsors.
The preparations may have taken three years, but the entire adventure will probably be over five-and-a-half minutes into his death-defying freefall, when Baumgartner pulls his ripcord a mere mile from the ground. Baumgartner refers to his training center as the "set," and considers himself an actor; the heroic star of a high-tech epic. His favorite film? Appropriately enough it's "The Right Stuff," the movie about US test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound.
"Felix is the right man to break my record," Kittinger says. "You can feel a change in the air almost like back in the 1950s."
An illustrious group of pioneers stands in a semicircle around Baumgartner like a Greek chorus, garishly painting the worst-case scenarios that could befall this modern-day Icarus.
"Felix should break through the sound barrier about 30 seconds after stepping out of the capsule," says Mission Analyst and Safety Advisor Einar Enevoldson, who spent many years as a NASA test pilot. Although Enevoldson is 78, he's currently planning his own attempt at the high-altitude gliding record.
Test Pilot without a Plane
"When Felix jumps, his posture will be crucial because of the extreme turbulence that is created when he breaks the sound barrier," he says. Sound waves ripple out much more gradually at the edge of space. Up there, the speed of sound is 1,100 kilometers per hour (690 mph), more than 10 percent slower than at sea level. If a jumper goes into a tailspin, his hands, for example, could hit the sound barrier before the rest of his body, causing injury.
"Felix is a test pilot without a plane," Enevoldson says. "This mission is about 'what if.'" Enevoldson speaks calmly and matter-of-factly. He suggests Baumgartner should deliberately flip onto his back like a helpless beetle during the next freefall test to see whether he can turn over onto his front again. To which Baumgartner replies: "OK."
Baumgartner wants to try out all the possible nightmare scenarios at a relatively safe altitude. After all, there'll be no-one there to give him advice when he goes for "the big one." The famous Murphy's Law adage states: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Major Edward Aloysius Murphy, the person to whom this phrase is attributed, was one of Kittinger's colleagues.
"We're writing history and stories," says Art Thompson, a lanky man who could easily pass for Clint Eastwood's brother. Thompson not only worked on the development of the stealth bomber, he also designed the Batmobile for the 1997 Batman movie.
"The capsule we've developed is a complete miniature spaceship," he says. Without such a pressurized cabin, Baumgartner couldn't possibly survive the several hours of his ascent. In the troposphere, which lies at an altitude of about 15 kilometers (9 miles), the atmosphere is so thin that a loss of pressure would render him unconscious in seconds -- and kill him in minutes. But that's not all. The sun also beats down mercilessly at altitude since the ozone layer ceases to provide its protective cover about 30 kilometers (20 miles) up from the Earth's surface.
Baumgartner's capsule will be transported up into the heavens below a massive helium balloon with an area the size of 20 soccer fields. It will have a diaphanous polyethylene skin a tenth the thickness of a regular children's balloon, but it will have to be strong enough to lift a capsule weighing more than a ton.
"Up there you don't realize you're falling. It's completely silent," Kittinger says. The world's fastest man will feel hardly a breeze as he hurtles toward the sound barrier. At that altitude the air is so thin that there may not even be the sonic boom typically produced when objects exceed the speed of sound.
Although space technically starts 100 kilometers (60 miles) out from the Earth, many laws of nature start producing surprising effects far lower than the official border between our planet and the heavens. For instance, the jumper's flesh could start boiling despite the chilling cold of the stratosphere. "Up there a similar thing happens to when scuba divers return to the surface too quickly," explains Jonathan Clark, a doctor who oversaw six Space Shuttle missions, including that of the ill-fated Columbia, which disintegrated on reentry in 2003. Clark's wife Laurel was one of the NASA pilots killed in that tragedy. He says he often wakes up at night with ideas for how astronauts could be saved from stricken spacecraft.
"The most dangerous thing is a hole in your pressure suit," Clark says. "It's called ebullism: The nitrogen in your cells begins to form bubbles and your flesh puffs up." That's precisely what happened to Kittinger's hand, though luckily for him, his swollen hand blocked the leak in his spacesuit.
It's time for another test jump. Baumgartner slips into thermal underwear. He has "502" tattooed between his shoulder blades: his number within the exclusive BASE-jumping fraternity. Another tattoo on his right arm proclaims: "Born to fly."
Four assistants help "Fearless Felix" into his spacesuit. Then the man who may soon be the world's fastest person sedately shuffles across the "set" to a waiting plane. The Skyvan plane buzzes into the sky like an old truck, climbing ever higher until it is no more than a dot, up as high as Mount Everest and directly in line with the sun.
Technicians and photographers, test pilots and veteran astronauts squint into the sky. Kittinger follows his challenger's test jump on a screen. Baumgartner stands on the ramp at the back of the plane, then takes a step into the void. He tumbles and tumbles, rolls onto his back, and deliberately gets into a flat spin -- precisely the situation that the test pilots want to observe.
Moments later there are smiles all around as Baumgartner turns onto his stomach and goes into a controlled freefall. Eventually the astronaut glides out of the clouds in an image as surreal as a photo montage. Even the backdrop is picture-book perfect.
For the veteran astronauts on the ground, yesterday's heroes, the spectacle is a nostalgic homage to their own achievements. For young BASE jumpers it is the passage into heaven of a subversive adrenaline junkie. For the sponsoring energy-drink company it's a living, floating billboard.