The PERRIS SKYVENTURE vertical wind tunnel is a hurricane in a can. Inside the core of a cylindrical building that looks like an air-traffic-control tower, air driven by huge fans whooshes upward at 100-plus miles per hour. The tunnel probably isn't the tallest building in Perris, California—a sprawl of malls and tract homes a couple of hours east of Los Angeles—but it feels like it. Near the top, two sets of doors open onto the column of wind. Customers walk through the doors, lean into the air as they spread their arms and legs, and are lifted off their feet. It's the sensation of free fall without the danger or rush: skydiving with its balls removed. If it's your first visit, a staff person helps steady you—in case you drift upward and panic or start bouncing off the walls like an air-popped kernel.
Today is Felix Baumgartner's first visit to SkyVenture, but no one will be holding on to him. A photogenic 41-year-old Austrian, Baumgartner is a high-profile professional stuntman and BASE jumper. BASE is an acronym for "buildings, antennae, spans [meaning bridges], and earth [cliffs]," and Baumgartner has parachuted off all of these many times. You can go on YouTube and watch him jump off the outstretched right arm of the enormous Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro—or, more prosaically, the roof of the 20-story Warsaw Marriott. For most of his stunts, Baumgartner wears a skydiver's jumpsuit. In the Marriott video, he's dressed in business casual. He did this to pass through the hotel lobby without arousing suspicion, but as you watch him walk to the edge of the roof in his tie and dress shirt, the impression you get is that jumping off buildings is, for Baumgartner, just another day on the job.
THIS EVENING FINDS Baumgartner dressed like an astronaut. He's in Perris training for his role in the Red Bull Stratos Mission, an elaborate, expensive, and very risky project sponsored by the Austrian energy-drink company. The mission's aims are twofold—part record-breaking athletic feat, part serious science. I'm here because I'm interested in the aeromedical-research side of things.
During the Stratos jump, Baumgartner will test a modified emergency-escape space suit designed by the Massachusetts-based David Clark Company, makers of protective suits for test pilots and astronauts since the early days of jet flight and space exploration. Starting in 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, astronauts have been required to wear pressurized, oxygen-fed suits not only while spacewalking but during launch, reentry, and landing—the most dangerous parts of a flight. Baumgartner will wear the test suit to stay alive during a "space dive" from 120,000 feet up, or roughly 23 miles. Though that height doesn't technically qualify as space—true space, with its almost complete absence of air, starts at around 62 miles up—it's close. Atmospheric pressure is less than a hundredth of what it is at sea level.
The jump is slated for late summer or fall in an undisclosed locale—most likely in New Mexico—that Red Bull is treating like an atomic secret. Wherever and whenever it happens, it will provide engineers with hard-to-come-by information about the behavior of a falling body in a pressurized suit in extremely thin air, along with data on the reactions of that body to transonic and supersonic speeds. This is not information with everyday practicality, but someday—if government-sponsored space exploration takes off in a big way, as it would during a long-term Mars mission, or if commercial space tourism ever becomes commonplace—the functionality of such suits could save lives.
Because there's so little air resistance in the atmosphere's upper reaches, Baumgartner is expected to reach the speed of sound—around 690 miles per hour—rather than just the 120-mph terminal velocity of a skydiver at lower altitude. No one has ever bailed out in a spaceflight emergency, and it isn't clear how best to do it safely. Baumgartner's plunge will help fill in the knowledge gaps.
Baumgartner says he's proud of the contributions he'll be making to safer space travel, but he's mainly interested in breaking records. The current skydiving altitude mark is 102,800 feet. It too was set by a man testing survival gear, in his case a parachute system. In 1960, in a project called Excelsior, U.S. Air Force captain Joe Kittinger stepped out of an open-top steel gondola carried by a helium balloon and skydived, in a partially pressurized suit, 19 miles to the ground. (Kittinger is an adviser on the Stratos mission.) In transcripts on file at the New Mexico Museum of Space History, in Alamogordo, Kittinger says he broke the sound barrier, but he wasn't carrying the necessary measuring equipment to make the record official. Thus Baumgartner will probably also enter the record books as the first human to reach supersonic speed without being inside a jet or spacecraft.
For now, Baumgartner is slumped in a low chair, sipping water during a much-needed break. Today is the first time he's worn the suit in wind-tunnel testing. He looks sweaty and undelighted. Pressure suits are heavy, claustrophobic, and restrictive. "There are some hot spots on the shoulder," he says. He means places where the suit is rubbing.