Red Bull Stratos’ Final Descent

Bridges vol. 39, May 2014 / Moves and Milestones

by Robin Weis

It takes a lot to catch Google off guard, but the Red Bull Stratos mission may be the closest an Austrian has ever come to taking down Google’s servers. In effect, Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 stratosphere jump consumed nearly one-seventh of the worldwide Internet bandwidth, according to Roberta Thompson, wife of Art Thompson, technical project director of Red Bull Stratos.

At the time, many at Google were unaware of the mission’s global allure and even suspected the influx on October 14, 2012, to be a cyber attack – while Felix Baumgartner plummeted towards Earth at vertical speeds that were revised upward to a record-breaking 1,357.6 kmh/ 843.6 mph/ Mach 1.25.

In early April 2014, the crew got together to celebrate Red Bull’s final descent, followed closely by the exhibition of its pressurized balloon gondola and pressure suit at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum.

The items, which will be exhibited throughout May, will eventually become part of the museum's permanent collection at its Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia.

The Red Bull Stratos project now stands among the giants of aerospace innovation, all exhibit at the Smithsonian. Still, the legacy of the Red Bull Stratos mission is far from being set in stone.

Conceived in 2005, the success of the Red Bull Stratos project was uncertain. Today, Red Bull can confirm that, with the right equipment and proper training, a human being can safely accelerate through the sound barrier. These insights acquire special relevance as space tourism appears likely to become commercially accessible in the next few decades. Coincidentally, six months after Baumgartner’s jump, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo powered up its engines for the first time to send aspiring astronauts into space for a deposit of $250,000.

On April 1, 2014, a panel discussion at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum revisited the Stratos mission, its queries, problems, breakthroughs and propositions for the space sector of the future. Tom Crouch, senior curator of the Air & Space Museum, participated in the panel alongside Baumgartner and Art Thompson. Baumgartner’s mentor, Joe Kittinger, a record holder for the world’s longest skydive (over 31 kilometers), also spoke at the event.

In effect, the Stratos mission is now looking to provide solutions to keeping crew members and passengers safe in emergency situations. The meticulous and redundant approach taken by the Red Bull team ensured that Felix went up equipped in a suit that boasted elaborate modifications to enhance visual acuity, GPS tracking, and thermal protection. Mike Todd, life support engineer of Red Bull Stratos, stressed that Felix “could have gone to the moon in that suit, but yet he was also able to fall in a head-down position and be comfortable inside it."

In reviewing the suit’s safety, it has been suggested that if the passengers on the space shuttle Challenger had been equipped with Felix Baumgartner’s suit, they might have lived through the mid air blast.

Art Thompson drew from his experience with the Stratos mission and is now poised at the forefront of developing a new generation of Personal Protective Ensemble (PPE) systems that will reassure commercial companies as well as space-tourism customers as they venture beyond the stratosphere. Part of this new found reassurance stemmed from the personal parachute rig developed for Felix, but
never before used for a supersonic free fall from the edge of space. The key aspect of its innovation was a drogue (stabilization) system and G meter-triggering device designed to stabilize Felix if he were to spin out of control at dangerous altitudes.

In establishing its place in space innovation, Red Bull seems to have embodied its motto as Red Bull Stratos aspires to give “wings” to future exploration missions.

Meanwhile, Felix Baumgartner plans to subject himself to unfathomable G forces yet again, as he fulfills his childhood dream in June 2014 by racing at the famous Nürburgring 24-hour race in the Eifel Mountains of Germany. Felix has also alluded to putting his skills to “public service,” as he envisions a “future as a mountain rescue pilot.” Having completed his helicopter license back in 2010, the Austrian base-jump legend will look to engage in critical rescue missions whenever his packed schedule permits.