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Thursday, November 1, 2012
Felix Baumgartner is ready to soar again

By Jared Zwerling

Baumgartner
Since becoming the first man to break the speed of sound, Baumgartner has been a space diver in demand.
Have you ever been on an airplane where the passengers clapped when it landed safely?

Many people feel the most comfortable on the ground, knowing they're not thousands of feet in the air. But Felix Baumgartner is the guy who's clapping at a jet's cruising altitude -- and much higher than that.

He loves to fly, which he proved to the entire world on Oct. 14 when he had the guts to jump from 24 miles up, becoming the first person to break the speed of sound. Baumgartner maxed out at 834 mph during his free fall.

The 43-year-old Austrian instantly became famous around the world for his Red Bull Stratos project, with fans camping outside of his hotels to catch a glimpse of him. Even TMZ.com tried to delve into his personal life. But he's been fast on the move, even with gravity holding him down, traveling from city to city to make the media rounds.

Fortunately for ESPN Playbook, we were able to catch up with him recently when he was in New York City. And if you think that his recent death-defying event was the end of Baumgartner's dangerous in-air pursuits, think again.

Have you watched the video of your jump yet? And has it hit you yet about what you've been able to accomplish?

Well, I haven't seen much of the footage so far because I was so busy, but, of course, we've changed the way how the world sees the stratosphere now. Because before, people really didn't care about the stratosphere. They weren't interested in that kind of stuff, but now people are really interested. There were so many ups and downs, all the tears and sweat, but we picked it up at the end and accomplished it.

It's cool because my life has changed a little bit because of the people now. When I'm walking down the street, I haven't met anyone in the last couple of days who did not see Red Bull Stratos. There were people waiting at JFK Airport [upon arriving in NYC]. They had big printouts, they had signs and it became so serious that I needed security guys to take me to the limousine. Then, they were stalking me in a restaurant and waiting outside. And even at four o'clock in the morning when I left my hotel, people had been waiting outside since the morning with printouts. So it's kind of cool on one side, but it's also scary.

Take me through what you were thinking standing on top of the earth, moments before you jumped.

Well, let me tell you: When I was standing outside, everything was so silent and peaceful and quiet, and you get this beautiful view up there. The sky was totally black and it was a very outstanding and unique moment because, at the same time, you realize that everything out here is hostile. And, of course, when I disconnected from my on-board oxygen, I only had 10 minutes left of oxygen, so I could not stand there forever.

So I took my breathing moment for a couple of seconds, but then I had to bail out. And it's not easy because you do something with such a high scale and you know the whole world is watching, that creates a lot of pressure.

What kind of pressure did you feel? And did that affect you at all before you made the jump?

Have you ever had someone watching you closely while you were trying to do something? Now, imagine millions of people watching while you faced the biggest challenge of your life -- one where a mistake could be life-threatening. I knew the cameras were there, and I knew the webcast would be live. I could have allowed it to be distracting, but fortunately I also realized that, through those viewers, an incredible amount of support and good wishes were coming my way -- and ultimately that was positive. So right before I jumped, I was completely focused on what I had to do.

How did you and your team decide on 24 miles, and not something higher or lower?

Well, we originally targeted closer to 23 miles, 120,000 feet. That altitude was chosen because it provided enough free fall in thin air to allow a good chance of breaking the speed of sound, without going so high that the risks would become unpredictable.

As it turned out, the balloon was able to go even higher without passing outside the parameters of acceptable risk, so we elected to jump from a higher altitude, which turned out to be 128,100 feet.

Felix Baumgartner
Baumgartner hit 834 mph during his record-breaking free fall.
I heard you worked with a sports psychologist to overcome claustrophobia. How did that help?

I should probably explain that I don’t have general claustrophobia; I don’t get nervous in elevators or anything like that. But people who have been involved in military programs have told me that it’s actually common for pilots who have to wear pressure suits to feel uncomfortable in them. And I was no different. There’s a sensory deprivation that really takes some getting used to. I had to wear the suit a lot to become accustomed to it, and also the psychologist taught me some very simple methods to change my mindset if I found myself falling into a pattern of negative thinking during the long hours in the suit.

For anyone who has a fear of heights, how can they overcome that feeling?

I can’t answer that. I’ve always had a love for heights.

Is there a sports figure you've looked up to for motivation?

One you know well in the U.S. is Muhammad Ali. I admired him as a kid, and I still do. I had the great honor of being invited to his birthday party several years ago.

Will you work with NASA at all to analyze your jump to see how it could change astronautical engineering? If so, how?

The team is sharing data gathered from the mission to help both public and private organizations understand the dynamics of acceleration through the sound barrier, as well as how the equipment and procedures we developed can help improve aerospace safety in the future.

How has your life changed?

I'm still the same [laughs]. Of course, there's a big relief because if you've had to work on something like Red Bull Stratos for so many years, and you wake up and go to bed, it inhales every second and you're just occupied with one thing. When it finally happens at such a level, and the whole world matters, that is unbelievable. Right now, I'm the happiest person in the world because I have time for something else. ...

What is that something else?

As you know, I've been busy with some media commitments lately, but I’m looking forward to having more time to pursue my other passion: flying helicopters. I’ve got both private and commercial licenses and have been doing some piloting work already.

Has there been one message or conversation you've had with a fan that caught you by surprise?

Oh yeah, a lot. I mean, I've been getting a lot of emails with wishes and "Thank you so much for sharing this." A lot of people keep telling me that this was the same thing for them with the moon landing years ago. And also the new generation, the younger generation, said, "Thank you so much for doing this because we never had the chance to watch the moon landing, but we have our own landing with Red Bull Stratos." That is a big honor to me because if they tell you that this is the same thing as the moon landing, I would never say that. But these people say that. That means a lot to me.

Would you be up for another crazy challenge one day? Any ideas already?

I think Red Bull Stratos was the peak of my skydiving career, but I will definitely be up for other challenges. What is life without goals? My next challenges will involve flying helicopters, as I mentioned. I want to fly for mountain rescues, movie shoots, fighting wildfires. Life will still be exciting.