"I would not do it again because there's nothing else to accomplish ... The fact that it worked once, does not mean it will work again."
Felix Baumgartner is a rock star. At least, he is to the bright-eyed group of tween boys crowding his Red Bull Stratos exhibit at the Smithsonian, the pieces of which are now set to become part of the museum's permanent collection. Baumgartner could also probably be an action movie star. He's brimming with braggadocio in that way only men who've dared and triumphed over the impossible can be; ruggedly handsome in a way you wouldn't expect from a daredevil. And he's also very stylish.Baumgartner refers to himself as the "fastest man in the sky," and the distinction is well-earned. In October of 2012, the Austrian stepped out from a custom-made space capsule 24 miles high and space dove toward terra firma, breaking the sound barrier along the way. As you might imagine, a free fall from the edge of space is not without significant risks. "I heard a lot of nightmare stories about flat spinning," he told me. "Which, if it happens too fast, you're facing too many RPMs; you cannot stop that spin anymore. And, at a certain point, the blood has only one way to leave your body and that's through ... your eyeballs. That means you're gonna die."
Red Bull Stratos at the National Air and Space MuseumSee all photos
As history and this interview reflect, Baumgartner not only survived, but he also broke several world records for the "longest, fastest and highest skydive in history." The achievement seems a dubious and frivolous one until you take into account the wealth of valuable scientific research data that the Stratos project yielded -- all of which the Red Bull Stratos team has made freely available. Not since US Air Force pilot Joe Kittinger took a similar jump in 1960 has any information on the physiological effects of a safe bailout from high altitude on the human body been made accessible to scientists.
"I heard a lot of nightmare stories about flat spinning. Which, if it happens too fast, you're facing too many RPMs. And, at a certain point, the blood has only one way to leave your body and that's through ... your eyeballs. That means you're gonna die."
The beneficial applications of this data, however, aren't anything consumers will see in the short term. It's more geared toward the advent of space tourism, an industry that's very nearly about to become a reality, albeit initially for a privileged few. It's this inevitable future that Baumgartner anticipates with the pragmatism of someone who's willingly faced death from the hostile world of our upper atmosphere. That is to say, he knows the risks involved. "We all know that one day ... there's going to be a spaceship that will blow up. And our equipment can save a lot of lives if they use it."
The equipment he's referring to includes the custom-built, pressurized capsule, suit and helium-filled balloon that ferried him to his 24-mile-high diving point. Of the bunch, Baumgartner's suit is perhaps the key piece that could easily be adopted for star-gazing space tourists. Based on a standard U2 pilot's suit, this next-gen pressure suit was heavily modified to make it more flexible for someone in a free fall, and featured an emergency jump chute, triggered by a G-force meter, to help arrest any potential free spin. None of which, thankfully, Baumgartner had to rely on as his jump went off mostly without a hitch -- that is if you don't take into account his 55-second free spin.
One other world record Baumgartner and his Red Bull Stratos team unintentionally broke was for YouTube. The space dive was streamed simultaneously by more than 8 million viewers. From the outset of the project's planning, his team knew that they wanted to share the experience live with the world. To accomplish that, a custom "flying studio" was developed with a special cooling system to manage the cameras' heat in the vacuum of space. Baumgartner also had a few GoPro cameras on-hand to record the dive, but he admits these were only there as a backup plan. The bulk of the communications equipment was housed within a large box mounted to his chest, while antennas for contact with ground control were laced into the pant legs of his suit.
"We all know that one day ... there's going to be a spaceship that will blow up. And our equipment can save a lot of lives if they use it."
You'd think that an adrenaline junkie like Baumgartner would literally jump at the chance to once again hurtle toward Earth at supersonic speeds from an impossibly high point up in the heavens. But the plain truth of it is there won't be a space dive part two. Baumgartner's moved on, but not without a little perspective: "I've been doing difficult stuff around the world for almost 25 years. And even if I was always prepared in a very good way, you still need a lot of luck. And at a certain point, you run out of luck. This is the top. I cannot top this one and I don't have to."