He falls and falls and falls. Eventually he pulls the ripcord, there's a loud whoosh, and the parachute pops out and unfolds. The man dressed in an astronaut's suit floats down to the dusty airfield of Perris, about an hour's drive southeast of Los Angeles.
Men in overalls rush over to him, relieving him of his helmet and parachute. Standing with his legs apart and a broad grin on his face, the man says, "feels like coming home."
The astronaut's parachute jump is the dress rehearsal for a far greater feat. Felix Baumgartner, a car mechanic from Salzburg, Austria, is planning to undertake the longest skydive ever: freefalling back to Earth from the edge of space.
Jumping is Baumgartner's life. As a little boy he would jump out of trees. Later he jumped off cliffs and skyscrapers. Now, standing on the airfield surrounded by BBC cameramen, the 41-year-old is just a hair's breadth away from the jump of a lifetime. Later this year he will jump from an altitude of 36,000 meters (120,000 feet). Only rockets and balloons have so far been able to get that high up into the atmosphere. On the way there, air temperatures could plummet to as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit).
Nobody Knows What Happens
The project is dubbed Red Bull Stratos after the Austrian energy-drink manufacturer whose almost inexhaustible advertising budget is sponsoring the exploit. Baumgartner wants to become the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound without the protection of a metal cockpit. Nobody knows what happens to the human body at this altitude in these icy temperatures and at this speed.
Sitting in an empty airplane hangar for the post-jump evaluation, Baumgartner tells his team, "It's pretty uncomfortable up there." He's just leapt from an altitude of more than 8,000 meters (26,000 feet). Although that's almost the height of Mount Everest, it's still only a quarter of what he is aiming for. Baumgartner isn't really worried about the cold or the thin air. It's the weight of his parachute, the two oxygen tanks he's carrying, and, most of all, the pressurized spacesuit that are causing him problems. "I feel like I've aged 50 years when I'm wearing it," Baumgartner complains.
More than a dozen experts -- coaches, advisors, and test pilots -- make up the extreme jumper's support team. They analyze his jumps and scrutinize videos. The most spectacular footage is shot by Luke Aikins; a bear of a man on the ground, but a veritable ballet dancer in the air, who has jumped alongside Baumgartner on all his test jumps, filming his partner's descent with a camera attached to his helmet.
Sky-diving maneuvers are second nature to Aikins. He knows that if he pulls his arms back he'll nosedive at more than 200 kilometers an hour (125 mph). If he spreads them out in the shape of the cross, his upper body will rise up, slowing his rate of fall. And if he holds them at his side, he'll roll onto his back as if lying on a gigantic air mattress. Aikins is part of a parachuting dynasty. His grandfather, parents, siblings, and cousins have all thrown themselves out of moving planes. He himself grew up on an airfield.
Dancing in Thin Air
Baumgartner sits in a converted portacabin. He is as passive as a boxer between rounds. Many people are busy around him tying his boots, tugging tight the parachute that's out of his reach. Looking a lot like an ungainly Michelin man, he stamps around in his pressurized suit. He even has wing mirrors attached to his gloves so that he can consult the instruments fastened to his chest.
It's Aikins' job to teach the clumsy spaceman how to dance in thin air. After all, he explains, the air in the stratosphere is a hundred times less dense than at sea level. As a result, free-fallers simply plunge helplessly earthward with no wind resistance to help control their flight.
Everything therefore depends on jumping correctly. That means there's no room for spread-eagle pikes like those of cliff divers, but merely a gentle rock forward; a tiny step rather than jerky movements. To practice this, Baumgartner repeatedly had himself hoisted up on a crane and then jumped off on a bungee cord. Each time, the astronaut finished head down, hanging off the rope like a carcass on a hook.
"The most dangerous aspect is the loss of control," Aikins says. "If you start to get into a flat spin, you quickly pass out." Although the emergency system would still release his parachute automatically, a tumbling jumper could easily get tangled up in his own lines. Tied up in his chute like an oversized silkworm, he would then plunge to a certain death.
So far only one person knows what it feels like to tumble helplessly toward the Earth from the edge of space. That man is Joseph Kittinger. Baumgartner calls him Joe. Kittinger has just raced onto the gravel airfield in his Audi TT like a testosterone-fueled teenager. Kittinger is 81.
The Dreaded Flat Spin
"I was the first person in space," he boasts. In 1959, just a few weeks after the Soviet Union had launched its Sputnik satellite into space, Kittinger took a giant leap, plunging from a height of more than 20,000 meters (70,000 feet) protected only by a spacesuit and a prayer.
A helium balloon as high as a tower block carried him up. The jump itself was a nightmare. Kittinger tried desperately to control his descent in the thin atmosphere, but he eventually ended up in the dreaded flat spin, revolving 120 times a minute. When he came to, he was dangling below his parachute, which had opened automatically.
Kittinger, who was a US Air Force test pilot at the time, logged his near-fatal descent as a success, and immediately set about planning his next jump. In August 1960 a balloon took him up to 31,000 meters (102,000 feet), even though he was in excruciating pain: one of his gloves wasn't airtight, and the low ambient pressure made his right hand swell like rising dough.
But Kittinger didn't mention the problem in his last radio transmission inside the balloon's gondola. "The sky above is void and very black, and very hostile," he philosophized instead. "Man will never conquer space. He may live in it, but he will never conquer it." Then he unclipped himself, muttered "Lord, take care of me now," and dived earthwards, faster and faster, eventually reaching a speed of 982 kilometers an hour (614 mph). August 16 of this year will be the 50th anniversary of his record-setting feat.
Baumgartner has set himself the task of beating Kittinger's record. The two men often stand side by side at the test site, Kittinger advising his challenger. "Records are there to be broken," he says sagely.
'You Can't Afford to Make Any Mistakes'
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.