RedBull’s Stratos Stunt

Baumgartner, covered in RedBull logos, begins his fall at just over 128,000 feet. Credit: Handout/Getty Images via The Guardian

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 RedBull sales skyrocket this month. But I’d argue that the event wasn’t entirely a success from a publicity standpoint. RedBull, 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 relation’s standpoint.

What ever else he may be, Baumgartner is definitely a good face for RedBull. Credit: Rex

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 RedBull’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 RedBull Stratos project, and its goal was defined as transcending “human limits that have existed for 50 years.”

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.

The International Space Station, which you can’t jump out of. Credit: NASA

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 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 data on survival. 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.

But what bothered me the most is how RedBull 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. Test pilots and astronauts in the 1960s were subjected to excessive 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. Credit: NASA

Which brings up another problem with RedBull’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 jump a jump from space is just not true, and unfortunately with eight million people watching those eight million people now have a very wrong idea about where space starts.

This was far from the only misinformation associated with the event. RedBull did a terrible job at presenting Kittinger’s 1960 jump. A real shame ,especially since Kittinger was Baumgartner’s capcom. From the RedBull 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, it completely ignores the history behind Kittinger’s jump.

Captain Mel Apt in the cockpit of the X-2 in 1956. He became the first man to fly faster than Mach 3 in this aircraft, but lost control at high altitude. He ejected, but the complicated system failed and he was killed on this record flight. The U.S. Air Force needed to stop this from happening again. Credit: United States Air Force

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 U.S. Air Force days. Credit: United States Air Force

During Baumgartner’s more than two hour long ascent to jump altitude, RedBull 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, RedBull 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.

RedBull 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 why it matters or the technology behind it.

The view as Kittinger jumped from the gondola at 102,800 feet in 1960. It’s a great picture, made more powerful knowing what Kittinger was out to prove and how rudimentary (by today’s standards) the precautions were. A leak in his suit caused his right hand to swell painfully during the ascent, but he didn’t say anything for fear the jump would be cancelled. Credit: United States Air Force

Comments

  1. David Shomper says

    Good article, I’ve thought it was just an expensive stunt from the start. And it didn’t change my opinion that R-B taste awful.

  2. says

    Here Here! Well said!
    There are no solid figure for what this stunt, and I believe that is the right word, cost the organizers, my guess is about $10 Million, but US network ad time costs about $110,000 for a thirty second spot. By my totally unscientific gut I’d estimate they got about a ten to one premium on their publicity investment, and that’s just the US, world wide I’m sure it’s much higher. However how many people will be convinced to try a Red Bull, a product that has quite a bit of controversy about it’s safety and value to society in general.
    I agree with you completely, a magnificent opportunity to educate squandered for spectacle.

  3. Mark R. says

    Good article Amy. I was also annoyed that the press repeated Red Bull’s line that this jump was meant to help people survive high-altitude emergencies. People like Kittinger and Stapp risked their lives for that reason, not for publicity.

    I do think it’s legit to say Baumgartner’s jump was from space or the edge of space, in terms of human physiology. I was watching the outside air pressure monitor in the gondola, and it got down to 0.01 psi just before the jump! Aviation physiologists often define a “space equivalent zone” extending from 50,000 feet (where respiratory exchange is impossible without added pressure) to 1,000 miles above Earth.

  4. says

    Actually, the announcer *did* mention it was on the anniversary of Yaeger’s historic flight, however I agree with the rest of what you say. I too questioned the science, and I’m nothing more than an engineering undergrad student.

    I’d also like to see some of the data collected; including, what were the specific hypotheses to be tested? The way they made it sound, we haven’t learned anything about space suits since the 1960s, and we conveniently that we’ve had about 50 years of space flight since then where improvements have been made.

  5. Josh says

    They did mention it was the anniversary of Yeager breaking the sound barrier. They did talk about Kittinger’s drogue chute jump*. They mentioned multiple times that Kittinger’s glove was torn and his hand swelled to twice it’s size. They also talked about how breaking the sound barrier during free fall was possible. That said, there were moments where they cut the capcom feed so Kittinger and Baumgartner could talk privately. I was more miffed that at times, the announcer left his mic on and was just breathing into the feed.

    They even talked about the pair of men who went up in a balloon shortly after Kittinger’s highest jump and broke his balloon flight record. They didn’t jump, but their capsule landed in the ocean and one of the men drowned when he fell from the helicopter’s hook system (Prather).

    *I don’t know if it’s the same jump you’re referring to, but in the one they mentioned, the drogue-chute cord wrapped around his body (neck?) and he ended up blacking out (redding out? – heard he might have been in a flat spin). Haven’t researched it myself, just remembering what the announcer said.

    I’m not looking to pick a fight or start an argument, but what coverage did you watch? I watched Red Bull’s feed on their site and most of your points were covered in some varying detail. I do think they could’ve done better than they did.

  6. says

    That’s a shame you couldn’t see that amazing thing that happened behind all those Red Bull logos. Publicity stunt or not, it was still a monumental event in human achievement that united roughly 8 million people for a few hours. Sometimes history and science education belong in the classroom and the wonder of human achievement can simply be observed and enjoyed, and that’s ok too.

  7. says

    Perhaps the live presentation was not wishing to steal the thunder of the BBC/National Geographic program, yet to come, detailing the jump. With luck, the program will do a much better job (voice-over, editing, old clips, etc.) than a live commentary could be expected to.

  8. says

    Wonderful article. I might seem a bit critical because while Red Bull could have done a lot more with it, what they have done is get people talking about it again. That is a good thing.

    Having a scientist explain what was going on could have been boring. They should have had more history shorts explaining the back story about Kittinger and his feat. No video though, poses a huge problem from a narrative point of view. Maybe they just didn’t know what would work for the audience and that is sad.

    There is scientific elements that can be taken away from this. Right now, there is no way to survive the loss of a a suborbital vehicle such as Virgin Galactic’s SS2 or XCOR’s Lynx. Some of the research done to make Felix’s jump possible may help these companies, as long as the data is, in fact, available.

    To me the jump brought space back to the forefront unlike anything else recently. I cal that a win. Not a perfect win, but a win none the less.

    Thank you again.

  9. David Shomper says

    I also heard the live announcer state that as the balloon rose, the ambient air got very cold and then started getting warmer. His reason for this warmup was because it was “getting closer to the sun”. Hmm, 120,000 feet closer out of 93,000,000 miles? Don’t think so.

  10. says

    Thanks for writing this. It was very interesting and informative, and at least I was able to get a bit of the history and science lesson here that I didn’t get from watching the Redbull stunt.

  11. says

    I agree that this was a huge wasted learning opportunity even for myself, a 34 year old adult. I had a lot of questions spring into mind. For example why, at one point in Felix’s ascent, the temperature was -90F but even higher up it was a much “warmer” -40 to -50? Or how was he going to achieve a speed faster than terminal velocity? Or even something basic like how fast you need to go to break the sound barrier. I had to consult professor Google during commercial breaks.

    Instead, we got two boring hours of cutting between Felix’s helmet and Kittinger sitting at his console with the occasional capsule exterior camera shot. With a little extra writing and some archival footage, a lot about science and technology could’ve been displayed with footage of Felix and Kittinger being displayed picture in picture.

    Also, I’ll stick with black coffee for my pep-up needs, thank you very much Red Bull.

  12. Al_Kellpone says

    A man did an amazing thing thanks to science and technology, millions of people watched it. Surely this is good? People I know who have never shown any interest in human endeavour were excited by it, and talked about when Man will go to Mars. Jolly good show.

  13. KS says

    Red Bull did very well from the marketing point of view. Every person has his own life, his own problems and his own history. Educating people forcefully about some facts that may be irrelevant to them can turn them off when the only thing they wanted to see was the jump itself. And Red Bull is not about history and the past. Its about future. Its about making new things happen.

  14. says

    Interesting point of view Amy.
    Did you watch it live?
    I was up at 5am to watch it on the Red Bull web site and they did cover a number of your
    complaints.

    As your article is more of an opinion piece it is neither true or false.
    I myself was glad there was very little “filler” so that I could enjoy it as a proper realtime event.

    I sometimes get annoyed if there is too much extraneous banter and/or documentary tie ins.
    It can sometimes detract from the Live feel, if it is over done.

    I think its worse when they spoil a live event by cutting to other info and by the time they
    realise something is happening and cut back, they end up missing what I think are key moments.

    Who knows what the decision making process was, but I guess Red Bull has a lot of
    experience with these kind of live events and perhaps the thinking is that education is far from
    its purpose. I think its important to understand that live events and documentaries are 2
    very different things. If you treat a live event like a documentary then it will loose its
    realtime feel and you end up destroying the very thing you are trying to create.

    The National Geographic doco that they mention is being made is the proper place for all the history and extraneous facts.

    Felix broke 2 world records and when he started tumbling out of control it was an extremely dangerous moment.
    I am more than glad that he survived because it was very close to going horribly wrong.

  15. Sean F says

    Great article. Wasted opportunity is correct – He should of had a can of Redbull in his hands before he jumped chanted the slogan – Red Bull gives you wings. – As he plummeted down to earth.

  16. Kevin says

    Very interesting article. Thanks.

    That said, your thesis seems to be that this was not a particularly successful PR stunt for Red Bull because they wasted an opportunity to educate about science. When did educating become a prerequisite for successful PR? Many people followed this event and heard the name Red Bull and saw their logo numerous times. Sounds like successful PR to me.

    It would have been nice had they decided to also use it as a “teaching moment.”

  17. fernando says

    red bull goes for the sales, obviously, they are not in the teaching business… i prefer this kind of advertisement than the nonsense we see on tv from other brands, it took a lot of people to the ‘edge of space’ for a while instead of to the edge of some boobs as usual

  18. Uncle Samurai says

    Leave it to someone to complain about a record breaking space jump. What did you achieve with this article?

  19. says

    Great article, Amy. I agree with many of your points, but when you strip away the logos and shameless publicity, you just get a guy diving from the stratosphere making history. Here’s my take on it: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/10/201210171020365230.html.

    As for the RB live feed, I actually quite enjoyed it in the end. Although I’m no historian, I felt the announcer did an OK job of recounting Kittinger and Yeager’s background, plus some nice tidbits as to why high-altitude attempts like this are so hard. As it turned out, Discovery News played an important, if unexpected, role in giving the mission some context. Your awesome articles in the Wide Angle were a highlight for sure.

    On the flip side to your argument, if only more companies invested so much money into stunts like this. It was very cool to be able to have a fly-on-the-wall view of Baumgartner from launch to landing. In that respect, I thought RB did a very good job.

  20. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoenhenheim den Sidste says

    “In the end, I have to wonder how much we’re gaining if the public is excited by space exploration but doesn’t understand why it matters or the technology behind it.”

    Bingo!

    I see quite a bit of this in our STEM education initiatives, which focus on making science & technology appear FUN while slacking off on the importance angle and eliding the fact that a lot of this is simply good, hard work.

  21. Chris Farmer says

    “His adventurous spirit and RedBull’s out-of-the-box thinking meshed well, sparking a now decades-long collaboration.” The phrase “out-of-the box” does not mean “outside the box”. It means “as is”, “unmodified”, “generic”. Also, could everyone please stop using the expression “at the end of the day”?

  22. Mateo Lazarić says

    I was watching part of the ascent on sports television in Croatia, the Croatian commentators mentioned most of the things you are talking about, however these commentators in the studio were a dying breed of journalist, they are no longer popular because they dont couse enough senzation and scandal, they do still work because they have become TV icons well in the past.

  23. skyweek says

    If your intent is to set the historical record straight, start with the numbers first: the YouTube webcast was only one of several ways to follow the live feed! Another 7 million or so viewers watched it on a German TV news channel (which reached its highest market share ever that day) and many many more on an Austrian TV channel (plus its webstream where I watched) that stayed on the story almost 24/7, far longer than the official webcast. My guess is that the total live viewership on jump day was at least 20 million, probably even more when it actually happened and other news channels around the globe briefly jumped on the feed as well. And those other outlets, said Austrian channel in particular which had a former German astronaut as studio expert, added a lot of background information to the feed.

    Regarding the “edge of space” meme, I was once as critical of that familiar stratoballoon = (almost) spaceflight wording as you are. But that applied to unmanned balloons as hobbyists launch them all the time nowadays: I once attended one such launch, and it surely felt like aviation. But with a human being on board it felt much different, as the demands on the protective suit are quite similar to those of an EVA suit in LEO: once Baumgartner crossed the ‘Armstrong limit’ he had much more of an astronaut than of an aviator. Just consider the air pressure he faced when opening the hatch: it was just a few percent of the value at sea level. From a survival point of view he was very much closer to space than to Earth that moment. That he was only (or already) 2/5 the way to the ‘van Karman line’ – so what?

    Finally regarding communication chances wasted: you also have to consider where others beyond the Stratos team went with the story, not just the information-rich Austrian TV version. For example in Germany the event brought at least three space scientists onto main news programs discussing various scientific aspects of his jump (and arriving at different conclusions whether anything useful for ‘real’ spaceflight was learned). I haven’t seen that many space science people on regular TV news in ages, not even for breaking real space news. Thus my bottom line: I was skeptical about the whole thing beforehand, but when it really happened, it became one of the big – yes – ‘space’ stories of the year.

  24. nick strang says

    I’m not 100% but maybe the reason some of the context and history was brushed over was due to deals made or plans made for several documentaries about the jump itself which are due to come out very soon , one from the BBC

  25. says

    Again, what Red Bull offered was a raw live feed of the – fantastic – pictures and the original audio, just like what NASA TV offers all the time: it’s up to YOU what to make/made of it. AFAIK the video feed was free for every media outlet, provided that they displayed a “Source: Red Bull Stratos” prominently enough at all times. What additional commentary or experts you added was up to you. Here we had the rare opportunity to watch an impressive semi-scientific event for free that didn’t fail to inspire scores of onlookersv – and that didn’t cost a cent of public money. So what’s there to complain, please?

  26. says

    Amy, for the most part you’re right on the money.
    Also, I had a bit of a bad taste in my mouth with the record going from a heroic pioneer like Kittinger to a publicity seeking daredevil like Baumgertner.

  27. mike t says

    8 million people watch a guy jump from a ballon, but were completely uninterested in shuttle launches the last 20 years, and are apparently also unaware there are 3 people on the space station right now, in free fall 350km above the surface of the earth doing 17000mph. its unfortunate. maybe its their inner child.. “ooooh. balloon!”

  28. says

    Tedious and immaterial piece. I’m amused that you think anyone coming to this article could be deeply engaged by your opinions about how it -should- have been done. Kittinger and Baumgartner are the subjects of interest, not Red Bull and not you.

  29. Tihomir says

    Amy,
    I’ve stumbled upon your article on the Red Bull Jump thanks to a link in the Universe Today’s article on recently (Oct 2013) published footage from Red Bull.
    I don’t know if you’re aware of this – Red Bull is an Austrian company and it has its own TV Channel there called Servus TV. Before and during the jump, they had extensively covered all the details of it, interviewing ESA scientists, Baumgartner, Kittinger, and many others. During the jump, they mentioned exactly all of the details you missed in the show you wrote here about.
    From all this, I conclude you must have watched a different channel (no wonder, since Servus TV is a german speaking channel sending primarily in Austria and Germany). Servus said Red Bull also had a BBC team covering the event, but BBC was “external” and “independently” doing their story on the event.
    So, I must wonder if you were critisizing Red Bull or was it unknowingly actually the BBC…
    Whoever, if they really didn’t mention all you’ve said, they failed in their job.

    BTW, I like your writing very much and would like to take the opportunity to thank you for it! Please keep writing!

    Tihomir

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