ROSWELL, N.M. — Whatever the leap means for mankind, it should definitely be one giant step for a man.
Felix Baumgartner, a professional daredevil, plans to step off a balloon-borne capsule 22 miles above Earth on Tuesday morning and plummet for five and a half minutes until opening his parachute a mile above the New Mexico desert. If all goes as planned, he will do a series of barrel rolls in the near-vacuum of the stratosphere and then plunge headfirst at more than 700 miles per hour, becoming the first sky diver to break the sound barrier.
Mr. Baumgartner, 43, a former Austrian paratrooper who became known as Fearless Felix by leaping off buildings, landmarks and once into a 600-foot cave, said that this was his toughest challenge, because of the complexity involved and because of an unexpected fear he had to overcome: claustrophobia. During five years of training, he started suffering panic attacks when he had to spend hours locked inside the stiff pressurized suit and helmet necessary for survival at the edge of space.
But he persevered with the help of psychological conditioning and a mentor, Joe Kittinger, a retired Air Force colonel who has held the altitude and speed records since 1960, when he jumped 19 miles from a balloon during a research project (after nearly dying in a practice jump). Mr. Kittinger, now 84, will be the only voice on the radio guiding Mr. Baumgartner during the two-hour ascent to the stratosphere.
“Felix trusts me because I know what he’s going through — and I’m the only one who knows what he’s going through,” Mr. Kittinger said on Sunday at the mission-control center here.
And just why would anyone want to go through this? Both men like to stress the science to be learned, but there are, of course, other motives.
“All of my life I have been looking for unique goals, things no one has accomplished,” Mr. Baumgartner said.
Mr. Kittinger knew just what he meant. “From the beginning of mankind, the boys want to go higher, faster, lower,” he said. “It’s a fascinating part of human nature. We’re never satisfied with the status quo.”
Previous attempts to break Mr. Kittinger’s records have cost a Frenchman nearly $20 million and claimed the life of an American, Nick Piantanida, a New Jersey truck driver who died from brain injuries after his suit depressurized in 1966. Mr. Kittinger said he joined this project, called Red Bull Stratos, after the energy drink, because he considered it the first with the resources to do the job properly, thanks to the scores of aerospace veterans hired by Red Bull.
For Mr. Baumgartner, the dangers will start as soon as his pressurized capsule lifts off. To reach such thin air requires an enormous yet lightweight balloon, 55 stories high, built of a polyethylene plastic that is one-tenth the thickness of a sandwich bag.
If the fragile plastic ruptures below 4,000 feet — the Dead Zone, as the project’s engineers call it — there will not be enough time for a parachute to deploy, forcing Mr. Baumgartner to make a crash landing.
Mr. Kittinger used a much smaller balloon to rise 102,800 feet in 1960. “It’s a phenomenal view,” he recalled. “The sky is black, and you see the curvature of the Earth, and the colors are beautiful. But you’re also aware that if anything happens to your pressure suit, you’re dead.”
The Red Bull helium balloon is supposed to climb more than 120,000 feet. There, Mr. Baumgartner will perform an exquisitely rehearsed bunny hop designed to keep his body from spinning out of control.
“In a regular sky-dive, you use your hands against the air to stop from tumbling, but there’s no air to use up there,” he said. “If you start to tumble over, you carry that tumble all the way down.”
The worst-case outcome is the kind of spinning that nearly killed Mr. Kittinger during a training jump in 1959. He went into a flat spin, blacking out as his body whirled at 120 revolutions per minute. He regained consciousness only after his emergency parachute opened automatically.
After the bunny hop, Mr. Baumgartner hopes his body will slowly rotate so that he descends headfirst and breaks the 614-m.p.h. speed record held by Mr. Kittinger. After 34 seconds, engineers calculate, he will have fallen to 102,000 feet and accelerated beyond the speed of sound, which at that altitude is close to 690 m.p.h. (the exact figure depends on the temperature).
“I expect him to reach 720 miles per hour, about Mach 1.1,” said Art Thompson, the technical director of Red Bull Stratos and a former designer of the Stealth bomber. Mr. Baumgartner should remain supersonic for 20 seconds, until he reaches an altitude of 92,000 feet. Then the thickening atmosphere should slow him to subsonic speed, and eventually to a terminal velocity of 120 miles per hour.
Engineers and physicians are not sure what will happen if Mr. Baumgartner goes through the sound barrier. They realize he could be battered as parts of his body go supersonic or subsonic at different times, but the impact is expected to be manageable because of the thin air at that altitude — or so the engineers and Mr. Baumgartner hope.
“I know the consequences if something goes wrong,” Mr. Baumgartner said as he went through preparations over the weekend. “And it crosses my mind — what if I’m never going to see my family again? But I have learned how to control my fear so that it doesn’t get in the way.” He is single and has no children, but his parents and girlfriend were here for the jump.
Mr. Baumgartner’s biggest struggle occurred during training with his custom-designed suit. In early 2010, when he showed the pressurized suit and sealed helmet to this reporter at the training site in Southern California, he explained the problem: “If you’re sitting in there for hours all by yourself, you create your own little world, and at a certain point it becomes, man, I don’t like this. I want to get out.”
Later that year, when he was supposed to do an endurance test in the suit, he instead got on a plane and fled the country — the low point of his life, he now says. He feared the whole project was doomed, but he managed to get used to the suit with the help of a sports psychologist and other experts. They taught him mental exercises and set up a routine to keep him busy during the mission: a 40-item checklist that he goes through with Mr. Kittinger
“I’ve never seen anybody else ever overcome that problem,” Mr. Kittinger said, recalling how people with claustrophobia were screened during his days as a fighter pilot. To get into the Air Force’s high-altitude balloon program, he had to spend 24 hours inside a dark three-foot box.
“Either it bothers you or it doesn’t,” he said, “and if it does bother you, it’s very difficult to overcome. It’s just amazing that Felix was able to do it.”
Now, assuming all goes well during his ascent, Mr. Baumgartner said he did not anticipate feeling reluctant to exit the cramped capsule 22 miles above New Mexico.
“I’ll definitely want to step off,” he said. “With every foot I fall, I’ll be coming to a safer environment. I’m coming home.”