WASHINGTON, D.C. — Felix Baumgartner is happy he never has to jump from space again.
The Austrian daredevil, BASE jumper and skydiver doesn’t feel that way because the famous Red Bull Stratos jump, in which he rode a helium balloon into the stratosphere and jumped to earth, was a bad experience. He feels that way because the project took five years of his life, and Baumgartner isn’t the type of guy who likes waiting to do anything.
“Working on Red Bull Stratos, as much as I loved working on the project, I also hated it,” he said. “Sometimes it felt overwhelming. I think we all underestimated the size of the project at the beginning.”
Baumgartner was in Washington, D.C. this week for the opening of the new Stratos exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, which rests in a large gallery in the west wing of the museum.
The opening of the exhibit, Baumgartner said, is a lasting tribute to Stratos’ place in aviation history. It also marks the end of a chapter of his life he is all too eager to move on from.
“We’ve really looked forward to this day,” he said, sitting in a fold-up chair in the middle of the roped-off exhibit. (It would open the next day.) “Years ago we talked about that if this was successful and we accomplished what we were hoping to accomplish, we would end up in the Smithsonian. And here, today, it’s finally happened.”
Baumgartner has the energy one would expect from someone who jumps off high things for a living — at one point a P.R. rep asked him if he’d like a water and he insisted on a cold Red Bull. He has sharp green eyes and his hair is aggressively spiked up front; his face is deeply tan and appears made of expensive leather. He was wearing a crisp black shirt and jeans.
Baumgartner is proud of Red Bull Stratos, but he made it clear that spending five years working on one project was trying on his patience.
It was also trying putting his life in the hands of a group of scientists who, more often than not, he had no idea what they were talking about.
“If you look at my background as a BASE jumper, it was me and my parachute. That’s an easy relationship,” he said. “With Red Bull Stratos, I’m not a scientist. I’m not an astronaut. I had to start from scratch. I’d be in a meeting with 40 other guys, and there’d be a problem, and they’d have five different opinions. Scientist number one says it has to be that way. Scientist number two says it has to be a different way. So the solution was to gather a lot of knowledge very quickly…so I could make the call.”
Red Bull Stratos, for those who didn’t follow along breathlessly as it happened, was Baumgartner’s successful attempt to parachute jump from the greatest height in history, as well as record the longest free fall in human history. He rode in a capsule that was connected to a massive helium balloon to a height of 127,851 feet, which is a shade under 24 miles, straight up into the air. He was so high he could see the curvature of the earth. And then he stepped out of the capsule and said “I’m going home now.” And then he jumped.
It’s easy to gloss over that last sentence, but let’s dwell on it a second. Felix Baumgartner went 24 miles into the air and he jumped. He then fell through the air for 4 minutes and 19 seconds before deploying his parachute and memorably screaming out “Rock and roll!”
Think about falling that long. Think about dreams in which you’re falling. In which you get that terrible sensation that you’re plummeting to your death. How long do you last before you jolt yourself awake?
Because this was 2012 and this is the world we live in now, Red Bull Stratos was little understood at the time. Most people grasped that a guy was jumping from space and it was sponsored by Red Bull. That was about it. People made jokes. It was a little piece of pop culture ephemera in a year full of it. Remember Felix Baumgartner? Oh yeah, the guy who jumped from space.
As the exhibit showed, though, Red Bull Stratos and Baumgartner’s accomplishments were no small pop culture nugget. It was a major accomplishment both for science, our understanding both of the upper reaches of our atmosphere and the possibilities of what a human being can do. Baumgartner broke the sound barrier on his fall. No human had ever done that before without being in a machine. He did it by jumping.
“A lot of young people have been inspired,” he said. “A lot of people have sent me emails and letters telling me that this was their personal moon landing.”
Baumgartner doesn’t like talking about Red Bull Stratos much anymore. After five years of preparations and two years of interviews since the jump, it’s hard to blame him.
There is one thing Baumgartner is excited to talk about though: race car driving. He has leveraged his connections with Red Bull and professional race car drivers to enter the 24 Hours Nrburgring, a day-long touring car race held at the famous Nrburgring track in Nrburg, Germany.
The lap length at the race, which is held on the north loop of the track, is 15.5 miles long, and the race allows over 200 cars on the track at any given time. This year there will be around 180 cars participating. Teams compete in groups of four, taking shifts over the course of the 24 hour race, as top drivers and amateurs alike compete at top speeds against both the course and each other. Much of the race is done at night, with little visibility.
There’s also rain. Rain is a problem. Baumgartner hasn’t driven the car yet — an Audi R8 LMS — on the course in rain.
“The race track is so long, that it could be raining like hell on one part of the track and dry somewhere else,” he said. “I’m flying back to Switzerland after this and driving straight to the race track. I hope on Friday it is raining because I need to practice in the rain.”
When discussing the race, Baumgartner becomes animated, nearly popping out of his seat as he discusses the difficulties, what he’s learning, how he plans on handling the car. He’s giddy, but he’s also nervous.
“It’s a team effort. You sweat together. You find solutions together,” he said. “The big difference between this and Red Bull Stratos is [with Stratos], if I screw up, it’s me. I’m not responsible for anything else. The blame is all on me. The victory is all on me. But if you screw up on a 24-hour race with three other top gun drivers, the blame is on me, but they can’t finish the race.”
He’s also refreshingly realistic about why he gets to do this.
“They aren’t letting me do this because I’m a great driver. They’re letting me do this because I’m famous.”
“But I also know how to drive.”