Death-Defying Skydiver Felix Baumgartner: It’s Never Been about the Thrills

November 2nd, 2012

Published on Spiegel Online International, November 1, 2012 (Photo-Gallery).

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: 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.

(full text).

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