Amy Shira Teitel is a freelance space writer whose work appears regularly on Discovery News Space and Motherboard among many others. She blogs about the history of spaceflight at Vintage Space, where this post originally appeared, and tweets at @astVintageSpace.
According to YouTube, eight million people watched Felix Baumgartner’s high altitude jump on Sunday morning. It was exciting and death-defying, but at the end of the day it was a just an elaborate publicity stunt that will likely see Red Bull sales skyrocket this month. But I’d argue that the event wasn’t entirely a success from a publicity standpoint. Red Bull, who sponsored the jump, wasted an incredible opportunity. It had an eight million person audience captivated, but did nothing to teach that audience about the context behind Baumgartner’s jump. Joe Kittinger’s 1960 jump was amazing, the heritage behind these types of tests is fascinating, but without any context the audience just saw a daredevil break a record for record-breaking’s sake.
I realize I sound like an irritated historian, but I also have a background (albeit a brief one) in publicity. Not taking advantage of an opportunity to teach eight million people a few awesome things about science is a terrible waste, from an historian’s standpoint and a public relations standpoint.
A little background first. Austrian-born Baumgartner started skydiving at 16. He perfected the art and in 1988 began performing skydiving exhibitions for Red Bull. His adventurous spirit and Red Bull’s out-of-the-box thinking meshed well, sparking a now decades-long collaboration. The idea for a free fall from the stratosphere, a planned altitude of 120,000 feet, was conceived in 2005. It was finally named The Red Bull Stratos project, and its goal was defined as transcending “human limits that have existed for 50 years.”
Baumgartner during the record-setting event. Courtesy of Red Bull Stratos.
Ostensibly, the jump was designed to expand the boundaries of human flight. More concrete goals listed on the project’s website include: developing new spacesuits with enhanced mobility and visual clarity to assist in “passenger/crew exit from space”; developing protocols for exposure to high-altitude and high-acceleration environments; exploring the effects of supersonic acceleration and deceleration on the human body; and testing the latest innovations in parachute systems.
It’s not entirely clear what applications this data would have, like the research on “passenger/crew exit from space.” The morning of the jump, people asked me whether the point was to prove that astronauts could jump from the International Space Station in an emergency. It wasn’t. Baumgartner’s 128,000-foot altitude (he overshot his mark) is only about 24 miles; the ISS orbits at an altitude of about 200 miles. Not to mention the astronauts on the ISS are weightless because they’re falling (i.e., orbiting) around the Earth at the same rate as the station, and that wouldn’t change if they stepped outside. It’s also unclear what other high-altitude/high-acceleration and supersonic environments in which people would find themselves that we need to know more about. Yes, there may have been some interesting data gathered from the jump, but it’s not enough to classify the stunt as any kind of research program.
The International Space Station, which you really shouldn’t jump out of. Courtesy of NASA.
But what bothered me the most is how Red Bull presented the jump. Saying that the Stratos project was designed to “transcend human limits that have existed for 50 years” is a good tagline, but it’s vague. Jumping from 24 miles doesn’t push human limits so much as technological limits. Technology kept Baumgartner alive during his ascent, protected him from the harsh environment during the fall, and slowed him to a soft landing. The other thing that stands out in the tagline is its implication that we haven’t learned anything about surviving in these types of extreme environments since 1962. In reality, test pilots and astronauts in the mid-to-late 1960s were subjected to high G-forces, relied on intricate life support systems throughout missions, and were spared exposure to the vacuum of space by spacesuits.
A schematic showing the layers of Earth’s atmosphere. The stratosphere isn’t quite space. Courtesy of NASA.
Which brings up another problem with Red Bull’s promotion of the Stratos jump. It was touted as being a jump from space, but 24 miles isn’t space. There’s no clear limit where the atmosphere ends and space begins, but the general consensus is that it’s around the 62 mile mark. NASA, which was established to run the space game in 1958, has awarded astronaut wings to pilots who’ve flown higher than 50 miles. Calling the Stratos event a jump from space is just not true (widely known as “#spacejump” on Twitter); unfortunately, with eight million people watching, those eight million people now have a mistaken idea about space.
This was far from the only misinformation associated with the event. Red Bull did a terrible job at presenting Kittinger’s 1960 jump. A real shame, especially since Kittinger was the person directly in touch with Baumgartner during his fall (his capsule communicator, or “capcom”). From the Red Bull Stratos website:
Joe’s record jump from 102,800 ft in 1960 was during a time when no one knew if a human could survive a jump from the edge of space… Although researching extremes was part of the program’s goals, setting records wasn’t the mission’s purpose. Joe ascended in [a] helium balloon launched from the back of a truck. He wore a pressurized suit on the way up in an open, unpressurized gondola. Scientific data captured from Joe’s jump was shared with U.S. research personnel for development of the space program.
This description isn’t just wrong, exactly, but it completely ignores the history of, reasoning behind, and accomplishments of Kittinger’s jump.
In the 1960s, pilots were pushing the envelope of supersonic flight at high altitudes. But this was a dangerous approach. While it’s easy to fly fast in the thin upper atmosphere it’s harder to control an aircraft. With no air for control surfaces to push against, aircraft tend to tumble, and when aircraft tumble pilots tend to eject. Tests with dummies showed that when falling from high altitudes, human bodies tended to get into a flat spin. It would be like rolling down a hill really fast but without the hill, and the G-forces would certainly be fatal. The Air Force needed a way to stabilize a pilot from a high altitude ejection, and Francis F. Beaupre had a sequential parachute that would do just that. Kittinger jumped from 102,800 feet in 1960 as part of Project Excelsior to prove that Beaupre’s parachute would work. It did, the Air Force had data and a healthy Kittinger as evidence, and the project ended. There was no live video of his jump. He was a Captain in the Air Force, and he jumped from 102,800 feet for Captain’s pay to complete a mission.
The full story behind Kittinger’s jump is a fascinating one. It pulls together classic themes like 1960s test pilots’ egos, their relationships with their aircraft, the push from atmospheric flight to spaceflight, and the era where men were probing unknowns because they were unknown.
Joe Kittinger in his Air Force days. Courtesy of United States Air Force.
During Baumgartner’s more-than-two-hour-long ascent to jump altitude, Red Bull could have told Kittinger’s story. The announcer could have talked about the technology keeping Baumgartner alive, what made his suit different or special, told us how he was able to break the sound barrier in a free fall, talked about problems like aerodynamic heating in atmospheric entry. Instead, Red Bull held an audience captive and offered them almost nothing but shots of Baumgartner in a suit and Kittinger at the capcom console. Even when the announcer talked about the possibility of Baumgarner entering a spin during his fall, he failed to mention the parallel that Kittinger had proved the graduated parachute system that stabilized a pilot’s fall. He didn’t even mention that Baumgartner’s supersonic jump came on the 65th anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s first supersonic flight.
Red Bull Stratos was an incredible opportunity to teach a huge audience about the past and future exploration of high altitudes and space. Having a scientist or historian narrating the jump would have brought a level of prestige to the event. It could have been less of a publicity stunt and more of an event designed to return scientific data that just happened to be sponsored by a corporation.
I can’t help but think this Stratos jump could have been more powerful and interesting had we learned the context behind the mission. In the end, I have to wonder how much we’re gaining if the public is excited by space exploration but doesn’t understand the technology behind it or why it matters.