Baumgartner’s Jump: Triumph or Freak Show?

A high-speed jump from 24 miles was a magnificent thing to watch — but it sure wasn't science

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Jay Nemeth / Redbull Content Pool / AFP / Getty Images

Felix Baumgartner of Austria jumping out of the capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos on Oct. 14, 2012.

We should all have been charged a nickel to watch Felix Baumgartner jump from his balloon on Sunday. His feat was improbable, it was courageous and it was oddly, fantastically beautiful. The sight of Baumgartner opening the hatch of his high-altitude pod and easing himself onto the little diving platform outside with the Earth curving away from him 24 miles (39 km) below was a jawdropping (in my case, literally) thing to watch. And yet a nickel seems like a proper price of admission; after all, that’s what you pay to see the sword-swallower and the fire-eater, right?

By the numbers alone, Baumgertner and his team deserve nothing but admiration. He jumped from 128,100 ft. (39,000 m) and reached a plunge speed of 833.9 mph (1,342 k.h), or Mach 1.24. It was -70° F (-57° C) at the altitude at which he jumped and he free-fell for 4 mins. and 20 secs. And yet he landed lightly and on his feet and walked away smiling and waving. Anyone else care to try a stunt like that?

But that’s the problem: magnificent as the thing was, it was a stunt. That was evident from the start in the way the event was framed — an effort to break the 50-yr. old free-fall record of 102,800 ft. (31,333 m) and to be the first human ever to exceed Mach 1 in a space suit. That’ll get you in the Guinness Book of World Records, alright. That’ll get you a top-shelf sponsor like Red Bull, which bankrolled much of the effort and had its logo plastered everywhere. And that’ll surely get you wall-to-wall coverage on cable and the web. But will it get you anything else? Not really.

(More: 50 Space-Race Highs and Lows)

There was a lot of chatter by the sponsors and the talking heads about the meaningful science the dive could achieve, specifically helping us design spacesuits for high-altitude bailouts and learn about how the body withstands Mach 1 acceleration. Well, not really. Pressure suit design is a mature technology, one engineers have been perfecting since the first pilots flew high enough to require pressurized cockpits. And suits that could withstand high-speed ejections followed shortly after.

What’s more, bailing out at a largely-airless altitude is, by definition, a matter for people in spacecraft, not aircraft, since planes and jets can’t fly that high. NASA engineers have been working on ways for astronauts to abandon ship the way Baumgartner did since the days of the Gemini program in the 1960s and have never cracked it. One very big reason: Baumgartner jumped from a stationary balloon. Astronauts at those kinds of altitudes would be moving, very, very fast — either up or down — bringing into play a violent kind of physics that weren’t involved on Sunday. This would be especially so if the crew jumped from just a little bit lower, where there might be too little air for a winged vehicle to get any purchase but where the atmosphere could still hit a diving astronaut like a cement fist.

Studying how a person outside of an aircraft or spacecraft survives a Mach 1 plunge is similarly dubious science. As people began to understand as long ago as 1965 when Ed White became the first American to walk in space, a spacesuit actually is a spacecraft — albeit a very small, form-fitting one. It provides physical protection from the surrounding environment, as well as air to breathe and a survivable level of ambient pressure. The physics and aerodynamics involved in controlling and living through the fall may have been radically different for Baumgartner from what they were for anyone who ever broke Mach 1 before, but the effects of the acceleration would be more or less the same.

Still, it’s only the worst kind of crank (guilty, I suppose) who could watch the spectacle of Baumgartner’s jump and crab about the lack of substance — even if it made me wince to see that nearly all of the news outlets bought and then sold the faux science angle so credulously. Even that, however, does not mean that we’re not all justified in watching the video of Baumgartner’s jump again and again — preferably on the largest screen possible since that’s the only way you can even begin to grasp the breathtaking sights he saw and the nature of the feat he achieved. And it doesn’t mean that if I ever met him I wouldn’t shake his hand with real admiration. What he did was deeply, extraordinarily brave and cool — even if it wasn’t much more than that.

42 comments
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Carlos Sedana
Carlos Sedana

Sour grapes...?

In thesis you are right, but far from being a Freak Thing, this jump was one of the coolest things I've seen in a long while.

You could have been more polite to Mr. Baumgartner, after all that is what we expect from a guy writing in Time.

Amazing feat, yes! Freak show, never.... 

GaryGuillermo
GaryGuillermo

I wonder about the cost?  How many hamburgers could that buy?  Beer?  Milk?  Feed a hungry person?

mark_r
mark_r

 A lot fewer than could be bought with the money that goes into smartphone ownership and usage everyday or the money that goes into the garbage we watch on television or any of many more hundreds of things we do that are not strictly necessary. Professional sports anyone? 

ByteMarx Livedaughtcom
ByteMarx Livedaughtcom

It was great science,

but it was great APPLIED science,

something that stuffy academics can never hope to understand.

mark_r
mark_r

 The point of the article is that it was not even all that important with regard to applied science.

Sachi Mohanty
Sachi Mohanty

Are the commentators here 90% male or what? What about the readers of this article and the viewers on TV?

Are males mostly into this adventure, adrenalin stuff?

Just wondering.

Twitter: @sachi_bbsr:twitter 

Captain Hindsight
Captain Hindsight

I find this article very ignorant. To assume this was nothing more than a stunt is ridiculous. Yes, it was a stunt, but it was so much more. A lot of innovative thinking had to have gone into this. If it hadn't, he'd be dead. They're not going to just tie a cardboard box to a balloon, put him some existing scuba gear, and send him off. Designs had to be made and tested. Could this article not say the same thing about Edmund Hillary's climb? Or Robert Swans trek? Or even the Apollo 11 mission!? You could, but you wouldn't. 

Phoenix31756
Phoenix31756

IMHO, I think he just wanted to see how many viewers he could have gotten to oversee him committing suicide if he didn't make it !

Am willing to bet that he got more viewers then some Facebook victims that had committed suicide !    

Phoenix31756
Phoenix31756

I, wonder how much Publicity would this have gotten if his parachute hadn't opened and he made a huge splat on the ground ?

Kinda figured everyone would call him a HERO................just for trying !

Some people are just not content with the cost of SUICIDE, they just have to figure out a better way of milking more money and viewers to see them do it.    

Hobga
Hobga

Bravo Felix. Mr Kluger, why does it have to be science to be worthwhile? The first trip to the Marianas Trench was more stunt than science too. Sputnik; stunt, and worthwhile. Engineering and guts (and money and glory) move us more than science alone.

mark_r
mark_r

 I think he is responding to the attempt to frame this as a great engineering feat that will push the technology for important purposes. (Just read any of the recent news articles.) 

Of course it was an engineering feat and possibly will spin off some tech advances but it is not really all that clear just how this will impact future technology.

Also, the author never said that this was without value, just that it fell more on the "stunt" side of the meter than it does the "science" side.

wilsonjoe
wilsonjoe

Baumgartner's jump was closer to science than your article is to journalism. Jerk.

Michael Malo
Michael Malo

Tacky Article, I expected more from Time. Science and engineering play an integral role into this jump. Does it REALLY matter how long engineers or scientist have been working on space suits. Yes this is all calculated and yes this is nothing close to jumping out of a space shuttle per say, thank for pointing out the obvious. That is compelling journalism. Stunt or not, I am glad the private sector has a vested interest in something that is entertaining and may just be helpful for our future in space. 

jamesPnn
jamesPnn

Actually it should be pointedout that NASA was present during this stunt with hopes of using infomation obtained to improve the deisighn of Space suits for the possibility of extreme altitude ejections . Although I suppose it is a stunt in the end , just like climbing Mount Everet , going to the bottom of the Ocean , walking on the Moon , or trying to fly fly a heavier then air vehicle , these are all stunts , but what magnifcent stunts they are !

RobertSF
RobertSF

Good article. I wasn't impressed at all by the jump.

1adfk2
1adfk2

You know, TIME mag, you don't have to make an issue out of everything just to fill space (pardon the pun).  Just SHUT UP and enjoy the spectacular event. And indeed, his BALLS MAKE YOURS LOOK LIKE PIMPLES I WOULD IMAGINE.

in_SANE
in_SANE

Ironic that TIME likes freak shows on earth, in terms of 'debates', that they keep talkin about them day and night that have no use on humanity and perhaps spending equal amounts of money, while at the same time rejecting something that less than 5 humans have ever done.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

OK it is a stunt and a few records.

So what?

It was an incredibly dangerous and really cool stunt and even with all the preparation in the World the odds on your dying outright are very high.

The history of extreme altitude jumping is littered with bodies.

He prepared as best as he reasonably could and pulled it off, Congratulations.

But like the other Red Bull sponsored guy who jumped without a parachute into a giant pile of cardboard boxes it is really good to know when it's time to quit.

He is wisely retiring; Sometimes you get to go beyond the edge and come back, not normally twice.

Guest
Guest

this whole story is bs, man jumps out of a ballon with a chute, nothing more. i have no admiration for this guy. anyone could have done it; well alot of people anyway

etchasketch44
etchasketch44

What did we learn by breaking the sound barrier?  Nothing. We finally built a plane that could do it.  Yaeger was lucky in the draw.

Waylan Loyd
Waylan Loyd

It was not a freak show,,it was an awesome feat...only 2 people have ever done it.....it was amazing.... 

LukesPop
LukesPop

 It fires the imagination just like basic research does... could you climb up a carbon fibre tether to a geostationary satellite and jump off? How much orbital velocity would you have to kill off (the satellite is hanging over one point on the ground just like the balloon was, yet you can't just fall... how exactly does conservation of angular momentum enter in here ...?) and how could you do that?

 Now you're thinking about physics, and thinking about building that tether, which would be great to have even if you couldn't do the jump....

MiltF
MiltF

I vote for this being science and triumph. Doing science is doing something new under controlled conditions, or verifying a prior trial. This certainly qualifies as that -- breaking the sound barrier in a suit?! Attempting to stay conscious while tumbling uncontrollably?! As to triumph, I saw courage, steadfastness, ambition, physical endurance, and success. What more can we ask for? Certainly far beyond watching someone dance under the goal posts.

ashish sambhus
ashish sambhus

To all the article haters out there ... The writer has nowhere demeaned the feat and, in fact, has said he has "real admiration" for the man. His point is simply that it did not lead to any greater scientific understanding as it has been claimed to be.  If some one wishes to contradict that point, they should point out the measurements made, tests done, theories verified during this adventure. I personally would be interested in knowing them too. Breaking the sound barrier in a suit is a verification of "what"? When Usain Bolt set the 100m record; he did something that no man has done before. It was awesome, stunning, inspiring too; but not science. I dont know whether Jeffrey needed to make this point by this article (that too with a somewhat provoking title ); but with him having made it, the right response would be refute his actual position rather than attacking a straw man.

p.s. for me, it would be interesting to know why he ended up spinning uncontrollably at the start of his descent; even after a perfect jump-off, when he was not supposed to. What were the mechanics there??

Stacey Landa
Stacey Landa

I completely agree with this article.  It didn't add anything to our quest for knowledge, and it had no more purpose than growing the world's longest fingernails or the most people hula-hooping at one time.  

Dave Oplinger
Dave Oplinger

Incredibly bold and daring, something that took lots of engineering and science to accomplish.  Don't think for a minute that it wasn't something Chuck Yeager would have wanted to do back in the day, if they had advanced that far. I would gladly have paid to watch!

Chris James
Chris James

Stunt or Science?  Why not both.  Sure the imediate scientific benefits are hard to see or even validate, but you have to agree that it took great science (albeit 50 year old) to make this stunt a safe one.  

It wouldn't be me going A over Tea kettle at 800+ mph...   would it be you?

danlunche
danlunche

Time Magazine - Useful news or a freak show?

Baoju Liu
Baoju Liu

 At leasst it let us open horizon

Edward Casey
Edward Casey

I agree with cjacja. The suit he wore was not breaking any new ground, nor was the environment nor the life support requirements. Nasa designed suits for a much more demanding environment for those who walked on the moon over two decades ago.

As it is, science is a study to bring new understanding or processes to light. Nothing new was on this flight; it was only simply engineered using data from the scientists and engineers that came before.

Mike Coager
Mike Coager

I learned something Mr. JEFFREY KLUGER, Felix Baumgartner has more balls than you do.

EricTbone
EricTbone

Reasoning failure.  Many people, if not most, would jump at the opportunity to do this (no pun intended), but it cost millions of dollars. I have the balls, but not the means. I'd be surprised if Kluger was any different.

Calling Kluger nutless for not doing something he didn't have the opportunity to do is utterly nonsensical. It's like calling him a coward for not opposing Hitler.

Captain Hindsight
Captain Hindsight

Many people would, I would, definitely .. Now that I know it can be done. You know, there was a 20 second delay in the TV feed? It was so that if a tiny tear in his suit happened, or a slight calculation was off, he'd die. I'm pretty sure Coager's argue is, it takes balls to do it the first time, cause the first time is usually when the most mistakes are made, and people die.

EricTbone
EricTbone

"I'm pretty sure Coager's argue is, it takes balls to do it the first time"

That's not what he said. We *know* it takes balls. Coager claimed Jeffrey Kluger was lacking balls apparently because Felix jumped and Jeffrey didn't. That's just a stupid; a thinking failure, a non sequitur. Jeffrey wasn't given the opportunity to make that jump.

There are people lined up around the block to go on a suicide mission to Mars. That takes huge balls.  Only one person can actually go. If someone does go, do we then say that those who couldn't go lacks balls? That's the kind of crap-for-brains reasoning Coager is employing here.

ArgenBarnfine
ArgenBarnfine

That's an easy to say, sitting on your couch.

EricTbone
EricTbone

There are ~3 million sky dive jumps each year. I've gone, because I could afford it. If jumping from 40 miles up was equally affordable, tens of thousands of people would do it every year. Yes, Kluger has big balls, but so do a lot of people. The idea that he's the only one who's done this because he's the only one with the balls is nonsensical.

Buba Kastorsky
Buba Kastorsky

So he must have more than 2 balls ... But perhaps less brains, which might be more important for those who use their brains more frequently than their balls...

Tracy-K-Stelzer
Tracy-K-Stelzer

@null:disqus Time Magazine - Useful news or a freak show? My mothers neighbour is working part time and averaging $9000 a month. I'm a single mum and just got my first paycheck for $6546! I still can't believe it. I tried it out cause I got really desperate and now I couldn't be happier. Heres what I do,..NDOQESB.Tk

cjacja
cjacja

No it was NOT "science."  At best it was "engineering".   Science is where you learn something about nature, engineering is where you use what you learned to make stuff.

Still I agree, it was a good stunt and paid for with private money.

Don Clay
Don Clay

Space suit design is evolving.  His suit was different from other suits.  Changes were made in the oxygen levels that were maintained just as there were many other differences in how this was done.  To say it's not science is as bad as saying that it was complete science.

Nebula77
Nebula77

Jeffrey.....you obviously missed the point.

If you were alive in the late 1400s, you'd call "sailing the ocean blue" a stunt as well.