You’ve probably heard that Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos team are back at their goal of breaking records with his planned 120,000′ skydive. You probably also know that the project was halted because of a lawsuit.
You may not know that the project almost stopped even before the lawsuit—because of Felix himself.
“I couldn’t do it. my head was letting me down.”
Before ascending into the stratosphere and free falling back to Earth in spectacular, record-breaking fashion, the Austrian BASE-jumper, 42, had to face his demons. At the high point of his life thus far, he hit an all-time low.
The Red Bulletin: All went quiet on Red Bull Stratos for nine months. What was going on behind the scenes?
Felix Baumgartner: Let’s go back to the time before the project was stopped because of a lawsuit. In December 2010, we carried out the last major tests with the space suit and it was clear to me that I had a problem – one I never thought I’d have – with my psyche. I had trouble putting on the space suit and it got worse and worse. I could barely stand a couple of minutes in it.
Could you describe the symptoms?
The idea was that the suit should feel like a second skin, but it’ll never be like that. Your movements and your perceptions are restricted. As soon as the visor closes there’s this nightmarish silence and loneliness – the suit signifies imprisonment. We hadn’t originally conceived of a test that confined me in the suit for five hours – that’s how long the entire mission should take – with the visor closed. After all my past exploits, all the extreme things I’ve done in my career, no one would have ever guessed that simply wearing a space suit would threaten the mission, me included. In the end, the symptoms developed into panic attacks.
You’re exaggerating …
Not at all. When it came to the crucial pressure test at -60°C, under real conditions with pressure and altitude simulated, and surrounded by cameras, air force personnel and scientists, I realised I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see a way around this problem. I’d easily mastered what seemed to be huge obstacles, like free fall in a pressure suit, but now my own head was letting me down. Instead of driving to Brooks [The Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering in San Antonio, Texas] to go testing, I drove to the airport and hightailed it out of America. I wept on the phone. It was the worst moment of my life. To that point I’d always known how to solve all my own problems. This time, in front of everyone, I’d found my limit.
Clearly, you’ve since pushed it higher.
We tried several things in training because from a medical standpoint a high basic fitness would also improve my stress resistance. But really, I mean… for 20 years I’ve done the most extreme BASE jumps, I’ve flown over the English Channel [in a wing suit], I’ve shown my stress resistance without hours of exercise bike sessions. The problem had to be solved another way.
Full interview online at Red Bulletin.