As Felix Baumgartner strides through the sun-scorched café on the top of Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Mountain he calls to mind Tom Cruise in Top Gun. He has the swagger, the aviator sunglasses, the fitted black T-shirt and – most importantly – the Cruise character’s “need for speed”. But when the Austrian former Base jumper talks about speed, he’s talking about being the first person to freefall through the sound barrier.
On October 14 2012 Baumgartner launched himself into the stratosphere from a capsule which had been raised by a giant helium balloon above New Mexico. The lone upward journey broke the altitude record for a manned balloon flight – and then Baumgartner jumped from a height of 127,852.4ft (24 miles), reaching a maximum speed of 843.6mph. To put this into perspective, long-haul planes cruise at between 30,000ft and 40,000ft. He spent a total of four minutes and 20 seconds in freefall, including a 13-second flat spin, rocketing through temperatures as low as -70.9C, plus, of course, a sonic boom. More than eight million people followed the supersonic leap live online.
Last month Baumgartner was in Brazil, collecting an award as Laureus world action sportsperson of the year. What on earth did the jump feel like, I asked him.
“Um, odd, not nice,” he said with a grimace. “It wasn’t painful but it was very uncomfortable. Let’s just say I wouldn’t do it again.” And indeed, Baumgartner has announced, officially, that he has no intention of ever trying to break his own record. I told him that I had expected him to be more elated as he recalled his achievement.
“No – it really wasn’t like that,” he said. “It’s such a hostile environment up there. Everything’s dangerous when you’re in space because there’s no pressure.” The flat spin alone could easily have killed him: he was spinning at a rate of 60 revolutions a minute, and it was only his skydiving skills that saved him from reaching 120, when the g-force acting on his extremities would have been 22 times the normal strength of gravity – soon leading to certain death.
He recalled that when he was training – a five-year project – he was once sitting in a pressure chamber, to test the pressurised protective suit he would be wearing. Right in front of him was a water bottle. As the pressure decreased, simulating the effect of high altitude, the water started to boil.
“The scientist outside the chamber said: ‘See that water boiling – that would be your blood if you weren’t wearing the suit.’ I looked at it and said, ‘No – I don’t want to see my blood boil!’ He said, ‘Well then – get used to the suit, because it’s saving your life.’”
But getting used to the suit proved tough, even though he worked with a psychologist to help him arrive at a point where he could cope with wearing it for a total of six hours, including the duration of his long ascent. “The suit … Man, it’s bad; trust me – it’s real bad,” he told me. “You’re locked in your own little world. You have to breathe 100 per cent oxygen for an hour before you start and can’t open your visor again until you land. The moment the visor went down was a bad moment for me.
“You can hear nothing but yourself breathing for hours and hours. The [team] recorded the horrible sound of me breathing once and played it into people’s headphones and asked them to imagine what it would be like to hear that nonstop for six hours in the suit. After five minutes they were tearing their headphones off.”
But the sound of his own breathing wasn’t the worst of it. “You have to use a lot of force to breathe, it’s not natural. It’s like breathing through a pillow. You keep thinking, I’m not getting enough air, so you panic, freak out and want to tear the thing off.
“I never want to be in one of those suits again.”
Baumgartner is 43. He trained every day for five years for the jump – physical and psychological training and working with a team of scientists. “It all became quite overwhelming as the jump date came closer. All these scientists, nutritionists, experts, all examining me. I felt like a lab rat,” he said.
“There were times when I thought I’d made a big mistake – flying was freedom to me, and suddenly I was in this suit which felt like a cage. I’d never felt less free. It was all wrong. I thought, why did I ever think this was a good idea?”
The reason Baumgartner thought it would be a good idea was because he wanted to emulate his hero, Joe Kittinger of the US Air Force, who as a captain in 1960 had made the then longest freefall parachute jump, of 102,800ft (19 miles), from a high-altitude balloon. “They called themselves pre-astronauts in those days, jumping from high altitudes just to find out whether a living person could survive up there. They had no idea what space was like – animals had been sent up, and had come back, but an animal can’t tell you what happened and how it felt, so at a certain point you have to send a human. Joe Kittinger was that human.”
In 1999 Baumgartner claimed his first world record – for the highest parachute jump from a building – when he made an illegal jump from a height of 1,479ft from Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. But eventually he decided he wanted to try and make a jump even higher than that of Kittinger, who had retired from the military as a colonel. “I spoke to my sponsors, Red Bull, and they agreed to back it. The moment they said ‘yes’ was the most crazy and exciting time in the whole project. That was 2007. The first call I made was to get Joe Kittinger into my team. Five years later I was sitting on top of the world.”
Baumgartner, who was born in Salzburg, began skydiving as a teenager and, when he joined the Austrian military, became part of its skydiving team. Little wonder, then, that he discusses his supersonic jump from a stratospheric balloon in terms of a job well done. “I knew what I had to do,” he said. “I had to be clear-headed and aware … your body is just not supposed to be up there. I was trying to overcome fears.”
Of the moment he knew he was safe, Baumgartner said, “I felt like a 20 tonne weight had dropped off my shoulders. I had played through this moment in my mind so many times. The finest scientists from all over the world were involved, specialists in aviation, in space, electronics. These great scientists broke boundaries in their own fields just as surely as I broke the sound barrier.”
But he was firm that, as far as the stratosphere is concerned, his mission is over. “I still love speed, but I want to be a helicopter pilot now,” he said – he holds several helicopter licences. “I want to rescue people from mountains.”
He also hinted that he might settle down – he is engaged to Nicole Oeti, a former model. “I never wanted to have children before. It seemed unfair because kids have to be your priority, and they wouldn’t have been. It would be nice to be able to think about things like that.”
And how would he feel if his son or daughter said they wanted to emulate his feat? “One word: horrified.”