120,000 ways to die

FELIX BAUMGARTNER has not seen The Avengers. But crammed into a town car with his entourage, driving through Times Square beneath a massive billboard of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, the World's Mightiest BASE Jumper is hearing all about it. How the film's final fight sequence takes place just a few blocks from where their car currently crawls through traffic. And how Tony Stark does by accident what Baumgartner will do on purpose later this summer: free-fall back to Earth from space.

"What happens to him?" the 43-year-old asks. No one wants to answer, afraid of giving up plot spoilers. But Baumgartner is genuinely curious and downright apologetic about missing the summer's biggest blockbuster. "Seriously, just tell me. Does he live?"

In his defense, Baumgartner has been too busy for the cineplex. For nearly four years, the Austrian has been jetting back and forth between his home in Switzerland and the high desert cradles of The Right Stuff -- places like Roswell, N.M., and Lancaster, Calif., where steely-eyed missilemen from NASA's glory days still push past the edges of the aerospace envelope, though now they do it with private funding.

Over that time, Baumgartner has run himself through a physiological minefield. His body has been depressurized and repressurized. It has been flooded with pure oxygen. It has been surrounded by temperatures approaching 80 degrees below zero, repeatedly dropped 200 feet from a crane and turned and flipped by a team of engineers while being whipped from below by a massive turbine fan. All of it, the brutal testing and painstaking preparation, is for the Red Bull Stratos project -- a mission with the potential to produce even worse conditions. (Like dead-before-he-hits-the-ground worse.)

On a to-be-determined date this summer in Roswell, Baumgartner will be sealed in a specially designed space capsule that will be carried nearly 23 miles above Earth by a balloon. Then he's going to jump out. He will free-fall back down for all but one of those miles, during which he'll pass through two levels of our planet's atmosphere as well as the ozone layer. After traveling just 15,000 feet, he will reach Mach 1, going from 0 to 690 mph in 30 to 40 seconds. Not in a plane. Not in a rocket. Just him and his space suit.

"Here is my aircraft," he says with a smile, reaching past the unfastened top buttons of his shirt and rubbing his hand across his slightly exposed chest. Tattooed on the inside of his forearm are the words "Born to Fly." On any other body, that might come off as pretentious; on Baumgartner's 5'8", 160-pound frame, it's nothing less than fact. "I am never totally comfortable down here; I am most comfortable up there," he says, pointing through the window of the car, up through the skyscrapers and into the falling rain. "Even when the situation or the outcome might be unknown. There is a comfort that I cannot explain so much as I can just feel."

Baumgartner made his first skydive at 16, after which he joined the Austrian special forces' aerial demonstration and competition team. In 1988, Red Bull hired him to do skydiving exhibitions. Nearly 25 years and hundreds of jumps later, they are still together. "No, I am not married," he says, adding without even a hint of drama, "I am married to the sky."

He has flown from and into the greatest heights and depths the globe has to offer. On April 15, 1999, Baumgartner leaped from the 88th floor of Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Twin Towers, setting a world BASE jumping record of 1,479 feet. Eight months later, he sailed off the right hand of Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue at just 95 feet -- the world's lowest BASE jump. In 2003, he flew across the English Channel in a self-designed suit with a carbon wing glider. The following year, he vanished into the darkness of Croatia's 623-foot-deep Marmet Cave.

So now, in search of what he says will be the final jump of his career, he is looking off-planet, seeking to set free fall records for speed (690 mph), height (115,000 feet) and time spent (5 minutes, 35 seconds), as well as highest manned balloon flight (120,000 feet). While his other jumps were astonishingly dangerous, Stratos reduces them to doing flips on a backyard trampoline.

TO STAND ON Baumgartner's stratospheric leaping perch, nearly 23 miles above the planet, is to stand on the doorstep of the unimaginable hells of space. His ride there will be a 60-story, helium-supported balloon constructed of 0.0008-inch-thick polyethylene strips. It will tow the stratonaut's 11-by-8 technology-packed, bell-shaped space capsule, pressurized at 8 pounds per square inch (comparable to about 16,000 feet above sea level) and filled with a 20 percent to 22 percent oxygen mixture of air -- the same as the mix on the ground.

Every foot traveled skyward presents another physical danger if Baumgartner is not protected. Constantly dropping air pressure sucks away dense, breathable air. Hypoxic conditions (the lack of oxygen) choke the brain, resulting in mental confusion and eventually loss of consciousness. At 63,000 feet, the lack of air pressure at the so-called Armstrong's Line -- named for Air Force space medicine guru Harry, not moonwalker Neil -- causes liquids to boil. (The condition is known as ebullism, and it's a concern, considering that 60 percent of the human body is made up of water.) At his final altitude, an unprotected Baumgartner would have useful consciousness for only seconds before succumbing to an excruciating death.

Of course, he will be wearing a space suit and helmet, a $200,000 outfit custom-made by David Clark Co., the same company that has manufactured flight suits for everyone from World War II fighter pilots to space shuttle crews. But unlike a traditional astronaut's suit, this one is flexible enough for the space diver to pilot his body through the free fall.

During ascent, the suit is connected to the life-support systems of the capsule. For the jump, the multilayered suit becomes self-sustaining. The first layer, a seamless rubber membrane, is filled with oxygen to pressurize his body at altitude and depressurizes itself through valves that can sense changes in atmosphere during the descent. The second layer is a hand-stitched microfiber netting that prevents the rubber from overexpanding. The outer covering is fire-retardant and insulated. Baumgartner's backpack is equipped with two oxygen tanks and two parachute rigs that include three chutes. The helmet is equipped with radio communication, an adjustable sunshade and a visor containing hundreds of tiny heating wires to prevent fogging during extreme temperature changes.

Yet the equipment is just one facet of the plan. Because of the constant, mounting environmental threats, every minute of the five-hour mission has been meticulously calculated, scripted and rehearsed on the ground and in multiple high-altitude test jumps. The latest took place in March, when Baumgartner ascended to 71,580 feet, the team's first crucial trip above Armstrong's Line. The capsule and balloon performed to plan, and Baumgartner requested some adjustments to the suit to compensate for cold. "As many tests as we've run, that was the moment where it all began to feel very real," Baumgartner says of the successful test. "It wasn't scary. In an odd way, it was comforting. Like, okay, no more ground testing and simulations. We're really doing this."

From the 75-minute prelaunch nitrogen washout -- where he'll breathe pure oxygen to flush any bubble-producing nitrogen from his blood -- until his feet finally touch the desert sands of New Mexico, he will be guided by a genuine mission control. "I do not care for the term 'daredevil,'" Baumgartner says with a wince. "I do not just show up and say, 'Hey, what the hell, let's jump out of a balloon from space today and see what happens!' Every jump I have ever made has been only after endless preparation and surrounding myself with the best people possible. Whatever we have done before pales in comparison to what we are doing here. I have an army of space legends."

Indeed he does. Technical project designer Art Thompson was a key designer on the B-2 Spirit Bomber and has overseen projects for NASA and the Air Force. Program manager and senior flight test engineer Marle Hewett is a former test pilot, Vietnam fighter pilot and former head of the Naval Academy's aerospace engineering department. Life-support engineer Mike Todd, keeper of the space suit, suited up nearly every test pilot during the wild-man days of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works projects of the 1960s and '70s that set every major jet altitude and speed record. Then there is Col. Joe Kittinger, flight operations and safety director and the constant, singular voice that crackles over the radio headset in Baumgartner's helmet. He is the melding of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Chuck Yeager. He has helped design the capsule's life-support systems, and he is the only man alive who understands what Baumgartner will be feeling, thinking and experiencing.

From 1959 to '60, then-Capt. Kittinger was the test director and pilot for the U.S. Air Force's Project Excelsior. As America inched closer to space travel, Kittinger's group was charged with testing a parachute system that would allow pilots to bail out safely at high altitudes. On Aug. 16, 1960, eight months before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Kittinger performed the third and last of those tests by stepping off the edge of a rudimentary, unpressurized gondola slung underneath a weather balloon hovering nearly 20 miles above Earth. The marks set that day -- free fall height of 102,800 feet, time of 4:36 and speed of 614 mph -- are the records Stratos aims to break. And they're why Kittinger serves as Capcom I, the only voice Baumgartner will hear throughout the Stratos mission. The two have formed an inseparable bond. More than mentor and apprentice, they have become true friends -- the only men in the world who can relate to the experience of space free fall.

AT LEAST TWO others have died aiming to break Kittinger's marks. In 1962, Soviet officer Pyotr Dolgov performed an Excelsior-like test of his own but cracked his visor as he climbed out of his capsule. Four years later, New Jersey truck driver and Guinness World Records wannabe Nick Piantanida was undone by a face mask that depressurized midflight. Dolgov had his organs scrambled by ebullism; Piantanida suffered brain damage from hypoxia and died after a four-year coma.

So for five decades, Kittinger, now 83, has been a one-man fraternity. He wants badly for that membership to finally double. "I stood on that ledge, and there beneath my feet was Earth, 500 miles in each direction, the brightest, bluest thing I'd ever seen," he says, recalling the moments before his first leap. "But when I looked up, it was the blackest thing I'd ever seen. Suddenly you realize that it isn't sky. It's space. And all you hear is you. Your breath, your movements. It was so still and so quiet that it was downright shocking."

Baumgartner, a self-described visualization addict, has spent countless hours imagining what that moment will be like. After the checklist of have-tos it will take to depart the capsule -- detaching the suit from air hoses (and a urination hose), making sure its pressurization is good, opening the sliding door and locking it down -- he has promised himself that once he steps out of the round four-foot door, he too will pause on the skateboard-size step and take in the panorama. "I want to stop and honor the image," Baumgartner says, sounding downright romantic. "I want to honor the small handful of men, both alive and dead, who have seen that same image. Joe describes it so beautifully. I want to take it in." Then he laughs. "But I don't have much time to stand there writing poetry. I only have 10 minutes of oxygen, and it's nearly a six-minute trip down."

Those life-and-death time constraints mean any little issue could jeopardize Baumgartner's safety. Just ask Kittinger. "I remember that jump like it happened this morning," the colonel recalls. Then he holds up his right arm. "And this hand was hurting like a sonofabitch."

The rubber inner layer of his right glove had been torn, and he didn't know it until he was on his way up and reached Armstrong's Line, where he felt the hand expanding as the water within the blood and tissues began to boil. The glove hadn't pressurized like the rest of the suit. But its outer shell essentially pressurized itself once the ballooning hand filled it up. "I knew if I radioed to the doctor below they'd abort the mission, so I took a chance that I might lose use of that hand and jumped. They had to cut the glove off. My hand was twice this size, but it's good to go now."

Moments like that keep Baumgartner awake at night. The unshakable man is shaken by the unknowns. The problems that can't be predicted. The tiny suit tear, loose screw or stuck door. An unforeseen panic attack, like the ones that enveloped him the first time he was sealed into the suit and capsule during a pressurization test in California. "It was the worst moment of my life," he admits. He saw a psychologist, Mike Gervais, who gave Baumgartner what he calls the "mental toolbox" to overcome "weeping waves of fear." Gervais helped him retrain his mind to not obsess over what he couldn't control, to trust others to do that for him. Baumgartner imagined he had a son and had to explain to the child exactly what the mission meant to him on a simple, emotional level. It forced the skydiver to back up from the details, out of the suit, and take a broader perspective. "My whole life I have known how to solve my own problems," Baumgartner says. "But when you step into the unknown, it breaks you down. The loss of control that comes with breaking new ground, with not knowing exactly what is next."

The biggest unknown still lurks up there around 105,000 feet. No one knows what will happen when a man hurtling earthward goes through the shock-wave cone that it takes to break the sound barrier. The lack of air means that Baumgartner won't hear the sonic boom, but the shock wave will still exist and the collision with it could damage his suit, exposing him to the outside. "No one's done it before," says Kittinger, who came within a hair -- Mach 0.9 -- of going supersonic. "That's called being a test pilot."

It is the job of the team to predict and prevent those potentially deadly unknowns. And there are enough of them to fill every bit of a very high-powered laptop.

"Is Felix looking? I want to make sure he's not, because he hates this part," says Dr. Jonathan Clark. Having left Baumgartner to do media rounds, Clark is sitting in a Manhattan hotel lobby alongside Kittinger, riffling through the folders of his computer for a specific clip of video. Clark is the Stratos medical director and self-described 1,000 Ways to Die Guy. He is currently an associate professor of neurology and space medicine at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine. Before that, he spent eight years with NASA, most notably as a six-time space shuttle crew surgeon.

"Watch this." He points to the image of an unmanned Stratos test. A drop pod that looks like an old V-2 rocket, the bullet-shaped weapon of choice of the Nazis and Wile E. Coyote, hangs from a balloon at 108,000 feet. Painted on its side is the name FELIX BOMB-GARTNER. "Every jump Felix has made in his life he's been able to steer himself," Clark explains. "But at these altitudes there is no air friction that he can use to control himself. That doesn't show up until he hits around 92,000 feet or so. How he enters that air is crucial, like a diver hitting the water. So how he departs the capsule is everything. That's why they've had him jumping off a crane on bungee cords, rehearsing over and over. If he comes down and hits the denser air at the wrong angle, he'll spin out of control."

Baumgartner won't really jump, he'll do more of a bunny hop. Holding on to the handrails behind him, Baumgartner will slowly lean forward and fall off the step, hoping to lock into a facedown, arms-back flying V formation that will hold until he reaches the air below.

With a click of Clark's mouse pad, Felix Bomb-Gartner is dropped. Despite its unmistakable aerodynamic sleekness, it goes into an instant uncontrollable tumble. "See? I told you he wouldn't want to see that."

Kittinger went into a similar spin on his first Excelsior jump. The small, preliminary drogue chute, designed to deploy mid-free fall to provide stabilization, deployed too soon and twisted itself around his neck. The instant it met the air, it filled and sent him into a rotational velocity of 120 rpm. His body became a centrifuge, slinging his blood into the outermost extremities. When blood flows into the feet, the body suffers a blackout. If it flows into the head, it's a redout and can do instant, irreparable damage to the soft tissue of the eyes and brain. Kittinger's spin was black. He woke up as he hit the ground, saved by an emergency chute.

While no parachute is guaranteed to open at an altitude of more than 25,000 feet, the drogue chute that was developed during the Excelsior missions is now an aviation mainstay, in every ejection seat in the skies and what Baumgartner can deploy if he feels himself going into a flat spin. Aerospace legends, including Yeager, have thrown their support behind Red Bull Stratos because they see an opportunity, like Kittinger in 1960, for innovation. Frustrated by NASA's current dormancy, they view the project as a legitimate part of the quickly growing business of
privatized space exploration.

"Ultimately, this mission's greater purpose is to introduce the world to the next-generation space suit," Kittinger explains. "The suit I wore was basically immobile. It was just what you wore to survive. This suit that Felix is wearing is like a tracksuit compared to what I had. Everyone in our industry is watching what happens here. The next crop of astronauts won't look like me. They'll look like Felix."

As Kittinger talks, images continue to flash on Clark's computer screen. There's a grainy photo of the monstrously swollen right hand in 1960 ("Look here, Joe, here's your clown hand"). There are photos and documentation of every major space-related tragedy. Clark even traveled to Russia to procure once-secret reports of the June 30, 1971, Soyuz 11 tragedy, when three cosmonauts had their craft depressurize prematurely and were killed by ebullism ("They were actually still alive when they reached the ground. If that happened today, we could save them now using respiratory technology we've worked on with Stratos"). And there are folders upon folders analyzing the 2003 re-entry destruction of Space Shuttle Columbia. Clark insisted on serving as a member of the investigative team despite the fact that it would teach
him the grisly details of the death of his wife, astronaut Laurel Clark.

That report includes an admission: No one knows for sure whether the seven astronauts could have survived a bailout had any ejection seat capability existed. "Joe's jump in 1960 is all we've had for decades," Clark says. "This project will move knowledge forward. It will save lives."

Then Kittinger interjects, "But only if we keep Felix alive first."

AS THE CONVERSATION winds down, Baumgartner, back from his media tour, approaches his crew in the lobby, hands up in surrender. "Okay, you have to tell me. What happens to Tony Stark?"

Finally, they do: Iron Man falls to Earth, his suit having failed while in space. But at the last second he is saved, caught among the skyscrapers by a fellow Avenger -- the big green one.

"Hey, guys," Baumgartner shouts. "We need to add one more person to the team. What's the Hulk doing this August?"

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