Standing more than 120,000 feet above the Earth, Felix Baumgartner wasn’t thinking about making history in a supersonic free fall as he peered at the New Mexico desert from the perch of the blackness on the edge of space.
The veteran parachutist was thinking about survival, a story retold in a new traveling exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
“When I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records anymore,” he said at an October 2012 press conference after his 127,852 foot high record-breaking jump. “You do not think about gaining scientific data. The only thing that you want is you want to come back alive …”
The helium balloon-lofted silver space capsule he rode into the record books, and a space suit-like pressure suit he wore on the Red Bull Stratos mission when he reached 843.6 mph, or Mach 1.25 on his descent, will be on display through March 16 at the Air Force museum, the exhibit’s final stop before permanent exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Joe Kittinger, a technical adviser to the daring free fall mission, was in communication with Baumgartner every step of the way on the day, Oct. 14, 2012, the record Kittinger held for decades was broken by the man he helped train to break it. “It was his dream and his goal,” Kittinger said. “I was happy to have the opportunity to help him do it.”
The retired Air Force colonel was a captain at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, when he went aloft in an “open basket,” as he called it, dangling underneath a balloon before he jumped 102,800 feet at more than 600 miles per hour over New Mexico on Aug. 16, 1960.
“The common thing is that both of us were in a very hostile environment,” Kittinger said in an interview at the museum Thursday. “Space is hostile.”
There were differences between the two historic jumps and jumpers. Baumgartner had 3,500 parachute jumps, while Kittinger had 32 before his big descent.
Kittinger wore a partial pressure suit, while Baumgartner wore a full pressure suit typically worn by pilots flying high-altitude U-2 spy planes, or astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
The former Air Force pilot had 13 people on his team; Baumgartner had about 200 on his high jump adventure.
Kittinger said he never set out to reach a record in 1960, but to expand the boundaries of research to make high altitude escapes safer for aviators and astronauts.
“We had no interest in a record, even though it was a record that was good for 52 years,” he said.
Two points in Baumgartner’s jump raised eyebrows. The parachutist feared his face plate on the pressure suit helmet was fogging up, which Kittinger said turned out not to be an issue, and Baumgartner entered a high velocity flight spin for 16 revolutions.
“We knew right from the get-go that there was risks involved,” said Dr. Jonathan B. Clark, a former Navy flight surgeon and Red Bull Stratos medical director. “The biggest threat we faced, and the one we actually encountered on the jump, was the flat spin.”
Team specialists worked closely with the Air Force at units across the country to gain knowledge and training necessary for Baumgartner to safely make the jump, he said.
The Red Bull mission attracted worldwide attention, but it also advanced the science of the next generation of pressure suits, experts said. The data will be useful to private space ventures, said Arthur Thompson, CEO of Sage Cheshire Aerospace in Lancaster, Calif., the company that assembled the Red Bull Stratos capsule.
“We’re not able to eliminate the dangers, but we are able to mitigate the dangers,” he said.