The sky was totally black, and I saw the curvature of the Earth. When you first step out, you have no sensation of speed. No sound. No clouds. I saw the capsule a couple of times when I was rotating. Then I could just see the sky, and then the ground.
What was the scariest part?
When I was spinning, I felt a lot of pressure in my brain and head. I had this button in my hand. If I push that button, it fires the chute and pulls me out of the spin. At the same time, if you fire up that chute, it's all over and you can't break the speed of sound. I had this constant conflict in my mind of "Should I push it and save my life – or am I able to control this?" We all knew I was going to spin. There's no way not to spin. But you control it. You're traveling over 800 miles an hour, so if you stick out your arm too fast, it might become more violent, like a car that's going so fast that you can't use the steering wheel.
What was the most difficult moment for you?
After four hours in the capsule, you're very worn out. You don't have any energy left, but you still have to perform. The whole world is looking at you. Nobody knows what will happen, and you don't know what will happen.
The balloon was 0.0008 inches thick, about the same as a plastic grocery bag. Did you trust it?
In a balloon that big with a human inside, you have to trust the team launching it. If they fuck up, you're dead. ATA Aerospace [which worked on the project] launches a lot of balloons for NASA. It's not difficult in the perfect conditions, but nothing is ever perfect. It might be windy, or conditions can shift unexpectedly – and then the pressure's on.
Did your years as a BASE jumper help prepare you for this?
Yes. For example, difficult BASE jumps require a lot of proper planning. For many of them, you get to the top of a building, but then the wind isn't right and you have to call it off. That's the hardest part. You're right there and you're so close and then you have to turn around. The part I had to train for was the exit from the capsule. At 120,000 feet, the air molecules are so small you have to make the perfect step-off, or you go into a deadly spin. I had to learn the right way to jump out – a bunny-hop that I practiced from a platform on a bungee rope.
During your training, you began to suffer bouts of extreme anxiety.
At a certain point, I found out I couldn't stay in that suit for very long. After an hour I was about to freak out. It was just embarrassing. We had a big test scheduled, and the goal was to stay in the suit for six hours in the capsule, and I knew I couldn't do it. Everyone lost faith in me. I had to fight my fear and make sure my team still believed in me.
What did you do?
I talked to a psychiatrist, and that helped a lot. I had to find a way to overcome my negative thoughts. You can't do this sort of thing thinking negatively. I never really liked the suit. I still don't. You're locked in. You only hear the sound of your breathing. But now I can handle it.
Why did you do this?
I want to inspire the next generation. I would love if four years from now, some young guy calls me up and says, "Mr. Baumgartner, I want to do that."