It doesn’t matter how many times people watch the video clip of Felix Baumgartner jumping from a height of 128,000 feet and plummeting back to Earth faster than the speed of sound. The moment he steps into the air, a physiological response kicks in: Muscles tense, hearts beat faster, breathing changes.
“They still get sweaty hands,” Baumgartner, 44, says with a smirk. “But I survived.”
More than 8 million people worldwide watched the Austrian skydiver complete his historic feat live on Oct. 14, 2012. And it’s now being shown on repeat at the National Air and Space Museum’s new exhibit “Red Bull Stratos: Mission to the Edge of Space.”
What visitors will learn is that every drop of their perspiration can’t equal what went into the project. Baumgartner’s attempt to best the then-existing record jump of 102,800 feet — completed in 1960 by Joseph Kittinger — required assembling a team of top engineers, physicians and other experts (Kittinger included).
The success of all of their work rested with Baumgartner. So, as soon as he dreamed up this idea in 2005 and persuaded sponsor Red Bull to fund it, the pressure was on.
Despite Baumgartner’s daredevil résumé and muscular physique, he wasn’t a natural for the challenge.
“I’m a sprinter,” Baumgartner says. “I like short distances, and going 100 percent. I want to be able to see the end.”
This jump was the equivalent of an ultramarathon. For five years, Baumgartner was completely immersed in preparation, which required studying, traveling, losing sleep and tolerating various uncomfortable positions. To pull through, he needed to boost his endurance significantly.
Because he hated running, Baumgartner decided to turn to cycling for cardio. While looking for a bike, he had a chance run-in with Andy Walshe, who’s coached the U.S. Olympic ski and snowboard teams. The high-performance specialist was soon directing Baumgartner’s training.
Walshe says his first step with any athlete is to understand what he or she wants to accomplish. In Baumgartner’s case, “the combination was unique,” but the elements were standard, Walshe says.
There was a clear strength component: The suit that was necessary to preserve Baumgartner’s life was heavy and hard to move in.
“I don’t think people realize that to even lift your arms is exhausting,” says Walshe, who also helped Baumgartner adjust to the psychological weight of the equipment. (Baumgartner’s description sounds miserable: “You get enough air, but it doesn’t feel like it.”)
The mission also demanded that Baumgartner be able to perform physically and mentally — simultaneously.
“So he’d be sweating, his heart rate at 170, and I’d have him repeat standard operating procedure in case of fire,” Walshe says. “That’s tough when you’re struggling to find your next breath.”
These exercises paid off for Baumgartner, who was able to keep his cool during the jump even when he began spinning rapidly.
“Once that happened, I had to find a solution,” says Baumgartner, whose heart rate reached its peak when he stepped out of the capsule, and then dropped during his fall.
The fact that scientists have that data is an example of how significant the feat was for future advances, says team medical director Jonathan B. Clark. If they could monitor Baumgartner, they can monitor people in other extreme environments.
Baumgartner’s more personal breakthrough? Figuring out what to eat before entering the stratosphere. Neil Armstrong’s pre-moon meal was steak and eggs, but Baumgartner couldn’t stomach that. Instead, he downed protein shakes.
Chances are he’ll use a similar strategy to fuel up before his next stunt — June’s Nurburgring 24-hour race in Germany. Baumgartner has never raced cars before, but he’s not worried. He’s used to going pretty fast.
The equipment used for the historic mission is on display at the National Air and Space Museum through May 26. The artifacts will then move to their permanent home at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Get more info at airandspace.si.edu.