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Photo Gallery: 'Fearless Felix'

Foto: Wolfgang Luif/ Red Bull Content Pool

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.

SPIEGEL: Why?

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.

SPIEGEL: Why?

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.

Biggest Challenges

SPIEGEL: You've said that the biggest challenge wasn't the ascent in the hot air balloon, the skydive or the dangerous flat spin that sees you turn on your own axis repeatedly during freefall. Instead, you say it was the tightness of your spacesuit that caused you the biggest problems.

Baumgartner: Yes, I'd tested the flat spin extensively, so that was routine. But the suit continued to be tight and uncomfortable. It's completely airtight. If it wasn't, I wouldn't have survived the low air pressure at high altitude. The suit restricted my movement, and every move required a lot of energy. I felt like I was locked in a prison. What's more, it was unimaginably hot in there. My skin couldn't breathe, and I had to put up with a lot. I was completely shut off from the rest of the world, and all I ever heard was my own breathing.

SPIEGEL: Did you get claustrophobic?

Baumgartner: Yes. At first, I couldn't stand wearing the suit for more than about an hour. No more. But I knew that when I went for my record, I would have to be able to bear the discomfort for at least seven hours. That seemed impossible to me. That's when I thought the project was doomed. I was devastated.

SPIEGEL: Did Red Bull push you to see the project through? After all, the company did put you in touch with a psychologist.

Baumgartner: That doesn't mean that Red Bull pushed me. I had got so far into it that I was ambitious enough to be able to bring the project to its conclusion.

SPIEGEL: How exactly did the psychologist help you?

Baumgartner: I got help from Michael Gervais, a psychologist who works with lots of American athletes. He told me it wasn't my body that was struggling with the suit, but my mind. He explained that the stress would eventually go away. I just had to imagine that no one would ever help me out of the suit again. It was a kind of shock therapy, but it worked. I forced myself to stay in the suit, and I tried to focus on external things so as to not let myself be sealed off.

SPIEGEL: At what point were you most afraid on the day of your jump?

Baumgartner: I actually never felt real fear. We were well-prepared. We had worked on this project for more than five years and conducted hundreds of tests. That meant we had ruled out nearly all the unknowns. I had previously had no idea what minus 75 degrees Celsius (minus 103 degrees Fahrenheit) felt like. Nobody can imagine that. Nor did we have any idea what it would feel like 40 kilometers (25 miles) up in the atmosphere, or how the body would react.

SPIEGEL: How did you figure that out?

Baumgartner: We were able to test everything out on the ground. We drove to the former Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where we found a cold chamber that we could cool down to minus 75 degrees Celsius and simulate the pressure typically experienced at an altitude of 40 kilometers. I spent five hours in there, basically in a vacuum. That way you feel exactly what effect cold has on you -- namely, a negative effect caused by stress. But once you know that the body can hold out there for five hours, you also know that two-and-a-half hours during the ascent won't be a problem.

SPIEGEL: But it was still just a simulation.

Baumgartner: Sure, but tests give you the self-assurance you need for the day itself. That was hard enough already because I knew I would soon be on a very, very large stage doing things no one had ever done before. And the whole world was watching me. It was hard to prepare myself for all this publicity. That's very hard to come to terms with.

SPIEGEL: The project was nearly called off several times. Why did your record-breaking leap have to be postponed twice?

Baumgartner: First, you need good weather to be able to fill the balloon. If that's going well, you can sit in the capsule while everyone waits for the balloon to be inflated. Then you hope the wind doesn't pick up. We're talking about a difference of only 2 kilometers an hour (1.2 mph). A wind speed of 4 kilometers an hour means "go," while 6 kilometers per hour means "abort." In this case, the balloon may have been inflated, but you can toss it away now because you can't reuse it.

SPIEGEL: Before your jump, you had said you didn't want to take any unforeseeable risks. But there were some: The heater on your visor broke. Were you more willing to take a risk because you wanted to avoid another delay?

Baumgartner: Perhaps. Your priorities change in moments like that. After all, we only had this one balloon. If that had not worked, we would've had to postpone the project until June 2013. But I didn't notice there was a problem with the heating until I had lifted off. Your options are extremely limited in the capsule, and you can't solve bigger problems. So when my visor started fogging up, the guys at mission control around Joe Kittinger said we'd have to abort unless we could get the visor issue sorted out because if I had opened the door, the inside of the capsule would have become as bitterly cold as it was outside. And if the visor had fogged up even more once I had gotten onto the jump-off ramp, I wouldn't have been able to get back into the capsule because the pressure difference causes the suit to swell. At that point, movement is very awkward. I wouldn't have been able to bend down and couldn't have squeezed back through the small hatch. So we couldn't test what would happen. We simply had to make a decision.

SPIEGEL: So you ignored Kittinger's advice and decided to jump?

Baumgartner: No. We went through all the possible scenarios together and decided to take the risk. But of course I had my doubts, and my pulse started racing.

SPIEGEL: What was your Plan B in case your visor got so steamed up that you couldn't see anything anymore?

Baumgartner: I would've opened my chute after 30 seconds. I wouldn't have been able to read the altimeter, but I would've known when I reached 10,000 meters (32,800 feet) because that's when the suit depressurizes. I wouldn't have been able to see, but the chute would've stabilized me. Sixty seconds later, I would've known that I was at an altitude at which there was enough oxygen to breathe. That meant I could've opened the visor. The attempt at supersonic flight would have failed, as would the bid to break the other records. But the important thing would've been to survive.

SPIEGEL: Especially since one of your predecessors, Nick Piantanida, passed out during a similar feat. Did that go through your mind?

Baumgartner: Obviously. Very often, in fact. The problem with a jump like this is that you can't see the danger. The images are beautiful, and I was fascinated by the Earth, by the way it lay there like a ball in front of me. The sky was black. Everything was very beautiful. With a fire, one sees the danger and, once near it, notes: "Look out! Danger!" Up there, you don't have these reflexes. I can't survive without the technology. The only good news was that death would've come swiftly if my equipment had failed. Everything would've been over within 15 seconds. The fluids in the human body begin to boil and bubble up, and you die in agony.

Plans Then and Now

SPIEGEL: But nightmare scenarios like that didn't deter you from the project?

Baumgartner: My medical director, Jonathan Clark, lost his wife in one of the space shuttle missions. He told me all about it in great detail. I was sitting there thinking I didn't really want that much information. Nick Piantanida, the jumper you mentioned earlier, suffered severe brain damage during his jump and spent four months in a coma before dying. Of course, that's the worst possible scenario. I can't bear the thought of my mother having to push me around in a wheelchair. I'd rather die quickly. I've thought about all these things during those endlessly long waits these projects entail.

SPIEGEL: Did your team have an emergency plan in place in case you died?

Baumgartner: If something like that happens live, you have to have some crisis management in place. We had already prepared appropriate statements for the press.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean you signed off on announcements of your own death?

Baumgartner: Yes. You have to act quickly if something happens. Granted, it's pretty bizarre having to read and approve a text like that. Not many people could do it. In extreme cases, the cameras would have been switched off. We had a private frequency. In these kinds of situations, there comes a time when you can see that things are going wrong. When that happens, you don't leave the cameras on. That wouldn't be ethical. No one wants to speak about this part of the story because people generally don't like talking about death.

SPIEGEL: That almost sounds like your own death was part of the planning process; as if it would have been an industrial accident.

Baumgartner: As a professional, you have to at least consider it. It comes up time and again with extreme sports. If you organize something like this and the whole world is part of it, you have to prepare for all eventualities so that you're not left standing there saying: "Er, what do we do now?" NASA has emergency procedures, and so did I. It's like taking headache tablets when you go on vacation. If you have them with you, you don't need them. If you forget them, you're guaranteed to have a headache all week. The better your preparation, the less likely it is that it will occur.

SPIEGEL: After your landing, someone was reportedly supposed to give you a can of Red Bull from your sponsor, but you asked for some water instead. At that point, were you annoyed by all the marketing nonsense?

Baumgartner: No, it didn't get that far. Nobody passed me a can, even though it would've made sense. If marketing had been our primary objective, we would've had to have a drinking scene. But there wasn't one. I drank water because that's was the first thing available. It's crazy if everyone is now saying it was all just a publicity stunt.

SPIEGEL: What was it then?

Baumgartner: It was also a scientific experiment. We were interested in it, and scientists were interested in it. But, of course, we needed funding. NASA is no different in this respect. The space shuttle launches were always great spectacles.

SPIEGEL: Except there wasn't the logo of a soda company on every drinking straw.

Baumgartner: We were able to pay for our project -- thank God! -- with our own money rather than with tax money. Of course, there are those who say we could've spent the money on something more sensible, such as saving the planet. Believe me, Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz already donates plenty of money, and his biggest donations haven't been for sports, but for medical purposes. So no one's going to complain about him spending his money on things that fascinate him. We also see it as an investment in research and development.

SPIEGEL: Many experts doubt the usefulness of your endeavor.

Baumgartner: This will have lasting benefits for future space missions. In many ways, we're role models for young people, undoubtedly more so than many of our politicians in the last decade.

SPIEGEL: You've announced your intention to give up extreme sports. Can an adrenalin junkie like you really ever do that?

Baumgartner: First off, I'm not an adrenaline junkie. It's never been about thrills for me. I'm just someone who loves a challenge, and I feel at home up in the air, just like sailors do at sea and climbers do in the mountains. Of course adrenaline plays a part, but it's never in the foreground. It's only ever been about goals and the ways to achieve these goals. That's also why I'm still alive after 25 years in the sport. But now that I've literally reached my highest point, that's enough.

SPIEGEL: You now plan to fly helicopters for Hollywood film production companies and work as a fireman. And yet the movie industry is desperate for characters like you, thanks in part to your fellow countryman, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Have you had any offers of that nature?

Baumgartner: No, not so far. For some reason, that hasn't come up yet.

SPIEGEL: Would you like to stand in front of a movie camera?

Baumgartner: I don't think so. I once wanted to be a stuntman. I was constantly on the front pages when I was a base jumper. But if I were a stuntman, my name would only appear right at the end of the closing credits, even though I'd risked my life for others. After a while, being a stuntman didn't interest me anymore. And acting? Everything I've done up to now has been real. "You only get one try," as they say. The actor's life is one of constant repetition. That doesn't really interest me.

SPIEGEL: How long do you think your record will hold?

Baumgartner: Very long. British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has already announced a follow-up project. All the copycats are coming out of the woodwork. They're all now saying: "That's what we've always been planning." Branson's project involves a jump from 120 kilometers (75 miles) up. I think I can now call myself an expert on this matter and, as such, I'm qualified to state that our 40-kilometer jump was hard enough to pull off as it is. Attempting to triple the distance is simply insane.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Baumgartner, thank you for speaking with us.

Interview conducted by Lukas Eberle and Janko Tietz. Translated from the German by Jan Leibelt.
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