On October 14, 2012 Red Bull sent Felix Baumgartner to an altitude of 128,100 ft in a pressurized capsule lifted by a helium filled balloon. The Austrian daredevil opened the door, uttered the words, “I’m going home now,” and stepped out into the stratosphere. Nine minutes and nine seconds later he had broken the speed of sound at 833.9 mph, set the record for highest free fall by a human being, and landed safely on the desert ground of New Mexico. However, one small misstep could have changed the outcome for the 43-year-old skydiver. At 24 miles above earth’s surface, Baumgartner jumped into an environment that is essentially a vacuum. If he stepped off harder with one foot, a turn could have been induced and spelled disaster for the project.
There were so many things that could have gone wrong at the beginning of the jump that it was deemed as the “35 seconds of terror.” During the early stages of the jump, Baumgartner began to spin out of control and worried that he would lose consciousness. Reflecting back on that portion of the dive he stated, “If you are in that situation and it spins you around like hell, and you do not know if you can get out of that spin or not… Of course that is terrifying… I was frightened all the way down to regain control, because I wanted to break the speed of sound. And I hit it.” He did hit it, and with the world watching him he broke scientific ground, set new records, and went where no man has ever gone before.
Fearless Felix, as he’s called, accomplished his goal but not without the help of talented individuals. Felix Baumgartner is the face of the Red Bull Stratos Jump, but who are the men behind the face? The team includes several outstanding men, three of which the Wisconsin Engineer Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with to get the inside scoop on the “A-Team” and the experience of bringing the Red Bull Stratos Jump to reality. The core team consisted of eight men from varying backgrounds. The man with the idea at the forefront of the project was Art Thompson, technical project director of Red Bull Stratos. Thompson has over three decades of aerospace experience and played an instrumental role in the development of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. He’s known for his napkin sketches and is referred to as the glue that held the Stratos team together. Thompson is believed to be the person that approached Red Bull with the project in 2005. Between Red Bull, Thompson, and Baumgartner the goal was set, and a team began to assemble.
One of the first recruits was Mike Todd, a life support engineer. With Todd’s expertise, Felix was fitted with the proper garment that kept his skin from boiling at such an altitude. Known as the pressure suit pro, Todd was not only responsible for the helmet, pressure suit, and corresponding oxygen components, he was also the middleman in assuring that all aspects of the project, from capsule design to parachute deployment methods, were harmonious with the gear Felix would wear. As an expert skydiver, parachute rigger, pilot, and engineer, Todd is the best of the best in his area of expertise. Another talented individual that was approached to join the team was Dr. Marle Hewett, program manager and senior flight test engineer. Hewett was in command of directing procedures for testing and, ultimately, the launch of a lifetime.
Perhaps the most unique background of all the team members is that of Colonel Joe Kittinger, aviation legend and Red Bull Stratos mentor. The magazine was fortunate enough to speak with Colonel Kittinger about his accomplishments and experience with the project. In 1960, Kittinger became the Felix Baumgartner of his time by setting the record for the highest free fall at an altitude of 102,800 feet. His background with the United States Air Force include the roles of test pilot, Squadron Commander, and Vice Wing Commander. He also spent eleven months as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Kittinger was invited to join the Stratos team as a mentor to Baumgartner and to provide valuable experience to the project, which no other person could offer. According to Mike Todd, “Joe has been one of the boundary pushers throughout his whole life,” which is why he’s so valuable to the Stratos team.
In an interview with the magazine, Kittinger described the individuals that made up the project as a group that “started off with very different people and ended up as a team that was a family.” The mentor to Baumgartner also had some words of wisdom, regarding teamwork, for young engineers and future groundbreakers here at UW-Madison. Kittinger conveyed that, “There are unlimited horizons in your career field so I encourage you to keep on it. The lesson is to set goals and work for them and remember that most everything that you want to do takes teamwork. You can accomplish very little by yourself.” When Kittinger embarked on the Stratos project, Red Bull asked what his goal was, Kittinger responded with the statement, “My personal goal is very simple. Get Felix Baumgartner to 125,000 feet and get him back down safely. That’s my goal.” This goal was not only met, but exceeded by 3,100 feet.
This goal was shared with another team member that worked closely with Baumgartner, Australian high performance director, Dr. Andy Walshe. Walshe has a PhD. in applied biomechanics and has worked for the U.S. Olympic Ski and Snowboard team, where he designed a performance program for the athletes that elevated the team from average to unstoppable. He was then hired by Red Bull to implement a high performance program for the various genres of athletes sponsored by the company. In his work with the Stratos team, Walshe was responsible for training Baumgartner to be physically and psychologically ready for the jump. It has been reported that Baumgartner dealt with claustrophobia when it came to the pressurized suit. However, in his interview with WEM, Walshe stated, “There was an anxiety issue with the suit. I don’t think claustrophobia is an accurate term.” Walshe and his team were able to help Baumgartner overcome the anxiety within a matter of weeks. That sort of hard work and commitment is what brought the team together. Upon reflection of the project, Walshe remembers the late nights to be some of his favorite memories, saying that, “Those quiet moments when we’re all sort of up while everyone’s gone home and we’re all hanging out trying to solve problems and having a good laugh and sharing some stories are the things I remember the most.” In regards to the day of the jump, Walshe said, “It didn’t let up. The day was relentless. It wasn’t until we saw the chute open and he put his feet on the ground that the day actually let up.” Nonetheless, being a part of such an incredible team was a fantastic experience for Walshe. He left WEM with a piece of advice for young engineers. He advised that, “If you find yourself the opportunity to join a team like this, with really highly experienced people, obviously dive in but don’t just dive in, give it your all. Get in there and learn it as much as you can and share as much as you can and be a good team member yourself. You’ll find that you’ll connect to people in groups like this if you’re honest with yourself about following your passion and these things will happen organically.”
Working alongside Dr. Walshe was Dr. Jonathan Clark, medical director. Clark is said to be one of the most renowned names in aerospace medicine. He’s a six-time space shuttle crew surgeon with a passion for helping others. He took on the role of medical director for the Stratos team to not only protect Baumgartner from the hostile environment of high altitude, but to also redefine protocols for aviators and astronauts. Clark, along with a medical team, identified all of the potential health risks and devised suitable plans for each risk with up to three layers of protection built into the plan. In an interview with Red Bull, Clark stated, “We may not have been built to fly, but we’ve figured out a way to fulfill our destiny.”
Fulfilling destiny is exactly what this next team member was doing when recruited to the Red Bull Stratos team. Luke Aikins, skydiving consultant, has been making dives since before he was born. His mother completed seven skydives while pregnant with him. Aikins has over 16,000 skydives and 300 base jumps to his name. Needless to say, his office is based in the sky. His role on the team began when he was brought on to take aerial photographs of Baumgartner in skydiving practices. After taking pictures of several jumps, Aikins noticed some safety issues and a lack of modern skydiving equipment. After putting in his, “two cents,” as Aikins said in his interview with WEM, he was brought on as the skydiving expert. He was instrumental in preparing Baumgartner for the jump as well as developing a way to automatically deploy the drogue chute, an extra safety chute, should Felix become unconscious or experience too much spin.
When WEM asked what his favorite memory of the jump day was, Aikins referred to the moment when Baumgartner started preparation to jump out of the capsule and was having difficulties with the helmets’ visor. Aikins said, “There’s a part where Felix says, ‘-I want to talk to Luke,’ so then I move out of my seat and I go up next to Joe (Kittinger), and I talk to Felix. He had some questions, and I’m sure a little bit of nerves, about some of the parachute stuff. In my mind that was one of the coolest moments, besides when the parachute opened, because he asked to speak to me because that was my area of expertise. In those moments of the jump, I watched a team that started out butting heads over everything; I saw a team come together. Joe turns to me, I turn to Art, Andy was right there involved - it was just an unbelievable team dynamic at the end. It took us a bunch of years to get there, but in that moment we worked as a solid team.”
A solid team is exactly what it took to get Felix Baumgartner to 128,100 feet and back down safely. The crew that came together to accomplish this death-defying feat will go down in the history books as aerospace legends. From engineers to medical specialists, skydivers to athletes, groundbreakers to sound breakers, Red Bull assembled a team of individuals that came together to achieve a goal. On October 14, 2012 that goal became a reality. However, there is still more ground to be broken and greater heights to jump from. Young minds can look to the Stratos team for inspiration and trust in the words of Felix Baumgartner, “It starts with a thought going in one direction. It’s a vision and finally it becomes reality.”