Death-Defying Skydiver Felix Baumgartner: 'It's Never Been about the Thrills'
In mid-October, Austrian skydiver 'Fearless Felix' Baumgartner broke the world records for balloon and free-fall height and became the first person to break the sound barrier without propulsion. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses the feat -- and how the real challenges were mental.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Baumgartner, your supersonic skydive from an altitude of 39,045 meters (24.3 miles) above New Mexico has been described as the latter-day equivalent of the moon landing. People are calling you the Neil Armstrong of the 21st century. How do you view the feat?
Baumgartner: I don't like to rate myself; others can do that. Over the last few days, I've spoken with a number of young people who weren't even born in 1969, when the first moon landing was made. These kids are happy to have had such a momentous event in their lifetime. In this case, they've witnessed the first person to fly at faster than speed of the sound without propulsion.
SPIEGEL: Was there any purpose behind your jump from the stratosphere, or was it merely a stunt?
Baumgartner: It's hard to classify my jump because the impressions are still so fresh in my mind. I still don't really understand exactly what I've accomplished, although I always suspected it would be a truly spectacular moment. Even so, I would've never dreamt that my skydive would trigger such gushing enthusiasm.
SPIEGEL: Your skydive drew the biggest live audience ever on YouTube. Eight million people watched you over the Internet. That's more than watched the inauguration of US President Barack Obama. How do you explain that?
Baumgartner: Aviation -- and space travel, in particular -- have always been especially captivating. To this day, only 12 people have ever set foot on the moon. People are fascinated about the world above them because it seems so out-of-reach. My jump gave them an opportunity to come along for the ride. They could watch live on their screens how someone rises all the way up into the stratosphere -- though the next bit was probably even more fascinating for them.
SPIEGEL: You mean your freefall, during which you broke the sound barrier and reached a speed of 1,342.8 kilometers an hour (834.4 mph)?
Baumgartner: I was so fast I could have overtaken certain bullets! That's completely unimaginable for most people. Even some scientists thought it would be impossible. While we were preparing the skydive, I asked experts at NASA and the European Space Agency what they thought. They all just shook their heads.
SPIEGEL: That clearly didn't deter you from your plan.
Baumgartner: As a skydiver, I've always looked up to Joe Kittinger. In 1960, he jumped from an altitude of 31,332 meters (19.5 miles) and reached a freefall speed of 988 kilometers an hour (614 mph). For me, he is what Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to scale Everest, is to mountain climbers. He is my idol and my role model. But it was many years before I had a chance to try to beat Kittinger's records myself.
Baumgartner: The idea came up several times. Various people had proposed it to me, but their ideas were always fairly crude. The first one was balloonist Ivan Trifonov, who came up to me and thrust a piece of paper with things on both sides into my hand.
SPIEGEL: So you didn't come up with the idea of free-falling from the stratosphere yourself?
Baumgartner: Not at first, even though Joe Kittinger had always fascinated me and flying is my big dream. Trifonov's piece of paper held two pictures: The first was a photo of a huge balloon; the second showed an astronaut in a spacesuit. Trifonov had the idea that I would jump from 50 kilometers (31 miles) up, and that I would plummet back to Earth at twice the speed of sound while standing in the bottom part of a rocket. Trifonov told me that he wanted to do all that in Gosau, a sleepy little village in the Austrian mountains. He said he'd already cleared it with the mayor. That was pretty absurd, so I thanked him and never contacted him again.
SPIEGEL: Trifonov now claims you stole his idea.
Baumgartner: That's complete nonsense because Joe Kittinger had set the records more than 50 years earlier. These ideas are his brainchild.
SPIEGEL: When did you decide to attempt to break the record yourself?
Baumgartner: Seven years ago. Shortly after Trifonov came to me, an American businessman presented me with a similar project. This was also fairly unrealistic, but I thought this had to be a sign. So I started thinking seriously about this jump, doing research and speaking with experts. Then I said to myself: "Why don't I try it myself with my sponsor, Red Bull? Why don't we plan our own project from scratch?" It was really important to us to develop the "Stratos" project ourselves, to do all the calculations very precisely and to assemble our own team.
SPIEGEL: What hurdles did you face along the way?
Baumgartner: The David Clark Company, which has been developing spacesuits for NASA for decades, initially refused to sell us a suit.
Baumgartner: We weren't interesting enough as a customer. The US Air Force would buy as many as a hundred suits at a time, but we only wanted three. The company was worried about losing its reputation if something went wrong with my jump. So, it took years to convince Clark that we were a serious operation.
SPIEGEL: Did your sponsor, the energy drink maker Red Bull, ever hint that things were getting too expensive?
Baumgartner: Red Bull isn't just a sponsor; it also helped drive the project forward. Of course the costs were an issue. But Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull's founder, isn't the kind of guy who's deterred by setbacks. If he says A, he can also say B. And if that doesn't work, he simply says C. Incidentally, "Stratos" cost far less than the 50 million ($65 million) that are being reported everywhere right now.
SPIEGEL: How much did it cost, then?
Baumgartner: I won't say, but this figure is way off.
SPIEGEL: Half as much?
Baumgartner: Not even. Let me put it this way: We obviously invested money. We wanted maximum security. What's more, we wanted "Stratos" to produce the most stunning pictures possible and offer people a breathtaking view of the globe from the comfort of their living room.
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