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.