After six years of preparation, struggle and sacrifice, Felix Baumgartner found himself quite literally on the edge of the world.
“I’m standing there on top of the world outside of a capsule in space and in the stratosphere. I looked around the sky above me was completely black,” Baumgartner told CNN Sport’s Patrick Snell as he reflected on his Red Bull Stratos freefall in October 2012, as he looked at Earth from a vantage point of 127,852 feet (some 24 miles/39 kilometers).
“I was really trying to inhale that moment,” added Baumgartner.
And with more that eight million people watching on YouTube, the Austrian daredevil uttered those famous words: “Sometimes you have to go up to understand how small you are. I’m coming home now.”
Six years in the making
It was a project that was initially expected to take 24 months from start to finish but ended up a taking up a number more years.
“We thought, we’re going to build the capsule, build the pressure suit, practice for a while, and then we go all the way up to the stratosphere and come back to Earth at supersonic speed,” says Baumgartner.
“Sometimes we’d go into a meeting with three problems and then leave that meeting eight hours later with another five … and no solution for the previous problems.”
To get Baumgartner up to the stratosphere, his team had to construct a helium balloon the size of 33 football pitches – weighing 3,708lbs. It took as many as 20 people to move without damaging the balloon’s material that was 10 times thinner than a sandwich bag.
But the biggest threat to the project was perhaps the most unforeseen – Baumgartner’s mental fortitude.
The suit had to be both pressurized and able to handle temperatures of minus 72° Celsius (minus 97.6° Farenheit).
“It’s very uncomfortable,” says Baumgartner. “You have a total lack of mobility. It always feels like you’re breathing through a pillow. You’re completely separated from the outside world. So once the visor is down, all you can hear is yourself breathing.”
The prospect of lasting up to eight hours in the pressure suit would take Baumgartner a number of months – and help from psychiatrists and sports psychologists – to accept.
“I had to look at the suit like it is my friend, not my enemy,” adds Baumgartner.
The Austrian jumped from the balloon effectively while in space, where the normal rules of sky diving do not apply.
He spent the next nine minutes falling through the sky, half of which were in complete freefall.
“Once I was on my way, I slowly started to spin in one direction, then I start spinning in the opposite direction, and then I really started spinning faster and faster and faster,” Baumgartner explained.
Baumgartner hadn’t been able to train for freefall in space, so that spinning sensation was extremely disconcerting.
“This was a very alarming moment because there is no protocol,” the 53-year-old said as he plummeted at a speed of 843.6 mph (1357.64 kmh) – 1.25 times that of sound. “It’s like sailing without wind meaning your skills do not work.”
He eventually passed through the Armstrong line, where the air becomes thicker, and Baumgartner was able to stabilize himself and started to “enjoy my skydive.”
“Once I opened my parachute and opened my visor, this was the first moment after seven hours where I was breathing outside air. I was reconnected to the outside world, and that was a very happy moment.
“The only thing that I didn’t know when I landed was: did I break the speed of sound? Because, once you’re in freefall, you know you’re fast, but you have absolutely no indication of how fast you actually are.”
Baumgartner endured an agonizing 10-minute wait – more time than when he was actually in the air – before he received confirmation that he hit a top speed of 844mph, over 75mph faster than the speed of sound.
“And at that moment I was really happy and satisfied because to me, breaking the speed of sound as a human, the first human in history, that was definitely something.”
The documentary “Space Jump – How Red Bull Stratos captured the world’s attention” — airs on Eurosport 1, discovery+ at 10:15 p.m. CEST (4:15 p.m. ET) Friday, October 14.