Buy a reprint of this issue.
Part One: Stratos, continued
Mike Todd is my favorite person on the Red Bull team. He’s the life-support engineer in charge of the pressure suit, oxygen and related systems, is responsible for suiting Felix up and will be the last person Felix sees before the capsule is sealed for launch. Todd worked in Lockheed’s High Altitude Life Support and Pressure Suit Division for years, a renowned life-support specialist for U-2 and SR-71 flight operations. He fitted pressure suits for Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson in their 2006 record-breaking Perlan (high-altitude sailplane) Project.
Before his career at Lockheed, Todd was an engineer, designer and test jumper for the parachute manufacturer Pioneer. Mike holds an expert USPA parachutist rating and goes way back in the sport. He knows me by name and reputation, for which I am flattered and grateful. We compare notes and it turns out we share some close friends. Mike goes out of his way to show me around; in fact, within minutes of our first meeting he escorts me to the Stratos capsule and insists I climb inside and check it out. I’ve sat in some impressive cockpits and I have to say: Felix has himself one hell of a ride.
Now we sit together in a silver Airstream trailer parked near the capsule, waiting for Felix to arrive at the airfield. It’s a little after two in the morning and the cozy interior of the Airstream is a welcome escape from the cold outside. I nurse a cup of coffee and chat with one of the medical team’s emergency physicians, who shares with me the startling revelation that the one-year hold on the Stratos project wasn’t really about the lawsuit (which he thinks was actually a cover story and could have been settled out of court in a day). He asserts the real reason the project was put on hold was that Baumgartner suffered from acute claustrophobia when he wore the pressure suit and helmet for prolonged periods. He says Felix bailed out on project on the very day of the first full-up mission test in the high-altitude chamber at Brooks Air Force Base, in San Antonio. Leaving the team in the lurch, he flew home to Austria with his tail between his legs.
I glance at Mike. His poker face seems to confirm the story—if it were untrue, I think he would speak up and deny it. I know Mike genuinely likes and respects Felix; he’s told the press that Felix is the perfect person to make this jump. Side observation: As word of the jump gets out over the next months, I encounter a parade of skydivers who entertain the Walter Mitty-esque fantasy of replacing Felix. (I have to admit: When I learn I am the same height and general proportions as Felix and would easily fit in his pressure suit, the thought crosses my mind.)
The story of Felix bailing out on the project is an interesting bit of news. Before coming to Roswell, I’d heard of his reputation for being a self-important jerk, the stereotypical media star. Even here, from members of the Red Bull team, I’ve heard references to Felix as “the talent.”
However, this unflattering characterization doesn’t jive with the Felix Baumgartner I’ve met. In a brief face-to-face meeting a few evenings back (this before the first attempt, scrubbed due to balloon failure on launch) I find Baumgartner polite and respectful, and I don’t get the sense it is feigned respect for my role (as dubious as that is) or reputation (I’m well-known in the discipline of precision landing, which Felix practiced early in his skydiving career). My impression in that first encounter was Felix didn’t know me from Adam; he is simply a genuinely nice guy.
I consider the scenario of him struggling to cope with the pressure helmet and sympathize. The significant physiological challenges of wearing a full-pressure helmet if you have no military aviation background—have never pulled high G-forces while sweating like a pig in air-combat maneuvering, every breath coming through a rubber hose, visor down against the mask to protect you from blinding sunlight and possible ejection, totally enclosed inside that claustrophobia-inducing protective shell—well, even with experience, plenty of “hot-shit fighter jocks” have washed out of U-2 or SR-71 training because of their inability to cope with the panic-inducing confines of the pressure suit and helmet.
“So how did he overcome it?” I ask Mike.
Mike tells us that to his credit, Felix sought help. Red Bull connected him with a renowned sports psychologist who helped him overcome—or at least, manage—his fear of confinement and suffocation inside the helmet. He says he knows nothing about the lawsuit but thinks it just worked out that the two issues shared parallel timelines.
Hearing this, my respect for Felix only grows. I have friends in the sport, superior athletes, who freak out when forced to ride in back of a crowded motel-shuttle bus, and suffer every minute of climb in a windowless jump plane. For Baumgartner to have overcome it is impressive. The entire episode—bailing out on his team, overcoming a debilitating fear in order to find a way back to them—no doubt it humbled him, but it also made him a better man.
4. First Launch
Dawn’s first light is framed by the open door of the capsule, an image captured by a video camera mounted behind Felix’s seat. The black of night gives way to delicate shades of blue, turning into pale violet above the horizon. Below the horizon, which splits the circular door neatly in two, the earth is still dark. I’ve been watching this exquisite transformation from night to day on one of the big screens from my seat in the back of mission control, where I returned after Felix arrived at the trailer for his suit-up and the pre-launch routine.
It’s 0646, Thursday, March 15, 2012. We’ve given up any hope of a sunrise launch due to excessive surface winds (the giant gossamer polyethylene balloons don’t inflate or launch well in winds above 10 mph). Drawn by the promise of an even better view, I head outside to watch sunrise from the upstairs balcony.
At 0711, the sun breaks the horizon directly behind a water tower situated across the flight line, creating the visual effect of a UFO with spindly legs, backlit by blinding white light. A few moments later, when the sun crowns the water tank, I snap a picture. Looking at the viewfinder, the sun appears like a neon-blue flying saucer. (I admit, my imagination might be overactive from lack of sleep, but this is Roswell.)
At 0715, I step back inside mission control and observe key decision-makers—Joe Kittinger, Art Thompson and two Red Bull executives—huddling with meteorologist Don Day. I surmise they are deciding whether or not to inflate the balloon or scrub the mission. Don Day has the unenviable task of making real-time weather calls that have hundreds of thousands of dollars riding on them (roll out a stratospheric balloon and you can’t put it back in the box). With a minor in meteorology from the Air Force Academy, I have an appreciation for the complexity and uncertainty of the profession (this declaration doesn’t include TV weather Kens and Barbies waving their arms in front of a blue screen and predicting partly cloudy with a chance of rain). Making real-world weather calls like this, with high-dollar and sometimes life-and-death implications, has to be enormously stressful. Red Bull has skimmed the cream from every profession and Don Day is no exception; he’s the best weatherman I’ve ever met.
The brain trust breaks huddle and decides to go for it. The order goes out by radio and inflation begins. By 0725, the “bubble” (the upper part of the balloon, filled with helium) is standing up pretty-as-you-please.
And the winds are dropping, 6 mph from the northwest—another great call by Day. I hear the radios crackle; the order goes out to insert Felix into the capsule. I gather my things into a backpack and head out to the launch site.
By now, sunlight floods the desert. Long shadows stretch from every person and vehicle on the ramp, longest of all the shadow of the crane from which the capsule suspends. Circulating among the various work teams at the launch site, I see bright expectation written on every face. There’s a buoyant feeling in the air; today is the day … finally!
By 0800, excitement is at a fever pitch. I observe the launch from 50 yards away with the sun at my back, my elongated shadow silhouetting the camera in my hands. The “flight train” (the bottom half of the balloon, the uninflated capsule-recovery parachute and its suspension lines) is drawn taut, stretched between the 10-story-high balloon bubble tugging against its restraint at one end and the capsule dangling under the crane arm at the other. Above the crane, a small red aerostat (helium-filled weather balloon) floats serenely, tethered by a 60-foot line, standing as straight as a flagpole, indicating nil winds.
All systems GO for launch.
I’ve watched a few Space Shuttle launches live, and the feeling that wells in my chest now is exactly the same as it was at the first launch after the Challenger disaster: anticipation tinged with dread. Especially since the only other stratospheric balloon launch I’ve ever watched was here on this site, two days before, and a sobering failure. The balloon was released into a cold, persistent breeze just under limits. The driver was late starting out. Anchored by the unmoving crane, the balloon spinnakered downwind, causing the flight train to bounce against the ground before rebounding back up … the balloon convulsed, then snapped like a bedsheet on a clothesline, splitting open, spewing its precious helium into the atmosphere before falling to earth like some mortally wounded ethereal beast. The crane came to an abrupt halt, capsule swinging at the end of the crane arm like a church bell.
Thankfully, the capsule was undamaged and Felix unharmed, although a bit shaken and more than a little frustrated. Definitely one for Red Bull’s blooper reel.
They call it a dynamic launch, and that’s an understatement. In my motel room after the failed launch, I dove into the Internet and learned everything I could about stratospheric balloon launches. There are dozens of YouTube videos showing balloon launches going back to the ‘50s. I learned there are many ways to launch stratospheric balloons, each with advantages and disadvantages. The Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) uses the “adaptive dynamic launch” technique, and this quickly became my favorite. They put the balloon upwind of the payload and let the wind push the balloon toward the crane, peeling the flight train off the ground in a smooth and orderly progression. This method is elegant and seems more logical to me. I studied other techniques (the French have their own, using two balloons) and came to realize success is predicated primarily on the execution of the launch team—and especially, the skill of the driver. Like so much of life, timing is everything.
Before turning in, I sent Art Thompson an email, hoping I wasn’t overstepping my bounds as a supposedly (officially) neutral observer:
First, I can’t tell you how much I admire how you conduct yourself and lead the team. You can’t do it better. As we fighter pilots say, ‘I’d fly your wing into combat.’ Second, please forgive if what follows is uninvited input. The engineer/parachute rigger/competitor in me believes that failure is a gift, but only if you decode it. This afternoon I watched videos (my own hand-held and the Red Bull video) of this morning’s launch a dozen times and came to some conclusions and hypothesis. I found some interesting videos of balloon launches that support my hypothesis . . . [I share video some links, advocate the Swedish method and mention the importance of timing] . . . Food for thought. If nothing else, the launch team director should have good reasons why he does it opposite, and I’ll gladly stand corrected.
Art Thompson responded graciously, correcting a few mis-interpretations he felt I’d made watching the videos. He agreed the Swedish approach may have advantages, but expressed confidence in his balloon launch team, ATA Aerospace. Nevertheless, he promised to share my concerns with them (reading this I squirmed, thinking I’d overstepped my bounds). He concluded, in his opinion, the real reason the balloon failed was simply poor construction—a bad seam.
I followed up with an email apologizing if my remarks seemed meddling, but that 40 years of aviation experience has taught me that silence is the enemy of safety; to always speak up and let the recipient weigh the merit of a concern expressed with best intentions.
Art wrote back:
You are so right that in the silence of good men, errors flourish. It is important for all of us to be open to comments, ideas and criticism because as knowledgeable as we think we may be we are learning every day. Often people who do something every day can learn from an outside observer with a fresh look at a new angle. I still say it was a crappy balloon.
: >) Art
When he saw me next, Art gave me one of his trademark bear hugs and a Red Bull Stratos mission coin. When next I saw the members of the Albuquerque-based ATA team (project lead Tracy Gerber; launch operations directed by crew chief Ed Coca), they showed no resentment over whatever Art had shared with them from my email. If nothing else, I hoped Ed Coca had encouraged his driver to get the crane moving the instant the balloon is set free.
So now, I wait for the launch command with heart in throat. I think about Felix in his capsule, entrusting his life to the ATA team, probably the first time in his life he’s done something this dangerous with so little control over the situation. I imagine it’s much easier for him to stand on the outstretched hand of Christ the Redeemer and decide when the moment is right to jump, than to sit alone in the capsule, essentially a passenger, waiting for the first jolt of the launch.
I glance at my watch: 0810. A few seconds pass, then suddenly the balloon is set free and rising. At the other end of the flight train, the crane is rolling. Everything moves in perfect synchronicity; the driver expertly maneuvers the crane arm under the balloon and releases the capsule—it swings smoothly away, levitating as if gravity has been temporarily suspended. Whoops of joy and jubilation carry across the field. I’m grinning from ear-to-ear.
Once the capsule has risen above the “death zone” (approximately 1,000 feet above ground level and the lowest possible altitude to deploy the recovery chute in case of a low-level emergency) and climbing safely away, I put my camera away and begin the trek back to mission control, unable to take my eyes off the balloon as I walk. The translucent polyethylene envelope glints in the sunlight, an improbable inverted teardrop rising majestically in the pale-blue morning sky, carrying Felix Baumgartner upward to his first stratospheric jump—a feat which only two men have ever attempted and lived.
Like this article?
Get more just like it every month, delivered straight to your mailbox. Subscribe today!