Felix Baumgartner, leaping from the edge of space

ROSWELL, N.M. – Dawn has yet to spread over the great American desert. A solitary light pierces the 4 a.m. blackness, beaming from the porthole of a silver Airstream trailer. Inside, a man in a spacesuit breathes pure oxygen as he prepares to make history and tempt fate.

“That’s the hardest part, waiting,” Felix Baumgartner will say later, after he has completed this July test jump from a staggering 96,640 feet high. That’s just 6,000 feet shy of a record set in 1960, but some 24,000 feet below the height this accomplished Austrian sky diver will reach by helium balloon on a clear day this fall.

Yes, you’ve calculated correctly. Baumgartner is preparing to plummet from a world-record 23 miles up, hit supersonic speeds of nearly 700 mph on his way down and, if his eyeballs don’t pop and his blood doesn’t boil, he’ll deploy a parachute, become famous and promptly never do anything like this again.

“This is the end of my journey,” says Baumgartner, 43, who has given five years of his life to Red Bull Stratos, a project sponsored by the Austrian energy drink and another example of private firms probing space — Elon Musk’s Space X, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — asNASA turns to robotic quests.

“I’ve always been trying to find my limit, and this is pretty much it. The biggest challenge for any athlete is to know when to stop,” says Baumgartner, who counts the likes ofTom Cruise among his fans. “For the second half of my life, I want to be a good helicopter pilot. Fight fires. Rescue people. That would be fun.”

Call him crazy

At the moment, Baumgartner is a one-man Rorschach test. Search his name online and it’s clear people see their own aspirations or fears in his Icarus-like endeavor.

To some, he’s a modern-day Mercury or Apollo voyager, bravely testing man’s limits as well as a new generation of spacesuit. To others, he’s just plain nuts, an example of 21st-century adventure sports run amok, Fear Factor meets Jackass.

Baumgartner shrugs off the loony label. “They said da Vinci was crazy, the Wright Brothers were crazy,” he says. “It’s a phrase for people who don’t understand what you’re doing.”

What’s undeniable is that in a world obsessed with reality-based drama, Red Bull Stratos takes the cake. A human will fall faster than a commercial jet can fly, and we all can stream the vertiginous madness live. It’s the ultimate GoPro performance with make-or-break odds.

“This is truly dangerous stuff,” says Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “But if approached right, there is tremendous value in it.”

Crouch mentions the two space shuttle disasters, noting that knowledge about surviving high-altitude jumps could help save lives. He adds that far from being a mere stunt, the project could be of enough merit that tourists will one day find the capsule that takes Baumgartner to 120,000 feet in the Smithsonian’s storied collection.

“Here’s what’s really impressive,” says Crouch. “They were able to recruit Joe.”


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