The Top Adventure Stories of 2012: Felix Baumgartner's Monster Fall

One record step for science, one giant leap for marketing

Yes, it was a stunt, but it worked. Eight million people watched live on YouTube as 43-year-old Austrian Felix Baumgartner floated high into the earth’s atmosphere and then jumped, breaking three major records. Shortly thereafter, news stories trumpeted the feat as a social media and marketing triumph for Red Bull.

Just to be sure you understand what happened, Baumgartner stepped into a capsule attached to a 55-story tall balloon made of a material as thick as a sandwich bag and floated up for two hours and 21 minutes until he was 24 miles above the parched pale earth of New Mexico. He stepped out of the capsule at 128,097 feet and fell, reaching a maximum speed of 833.9 miles per hour, breaking the sound barrier during a 4 minute and 32 second free fall that included 30 seconds of uncontrolled spinning before he was able to right himself and fall some more before pulling his chute and floating to earth. In doing all this, he broke the record for the highest manned balloon flight, the highest sky dive, and the fastest speed achieved during free fall. It was an adventure feat that took years of planning, teamwork between hundreds of experts, and extreme courage and composure from Baumgartner.

After the jump, Amy Shira Teital posted a gripe about the broadcast. She wrote that several important points involving the science and history of the jump had not been shared during the livestream. Baumgartner did not fall from space, which starts 62 miles above the earth’s surface, according to a general consensus. Baumgartner jumped on the 65th anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s supersonic flight. Baumgartner’s adviser, Joe Kittinger, who jumped from 102,800 feet roughly 50 years earlier, did so in order to test a parachute designed to stabilize a pilot from spinning after a high-altitude ejection. Even when Baumgartner started spinning, the exact science behind Kittinger’s jump was not mentioned.

To be fair, Baumgartner said before the jump that knowledge gathered during his attempt could contribute to life-saving methods for astronauts, pilots, and maybe space tourists. Concentrating on the lack of science might be a jaded take on what was otherwise an amazing feat. After all, people talked about the video for days and are still rewatching it. Google put the clip into a mash-up of the biggest moments of the year. Who knows? Maybe a child watching the video was so inspired that she’ll dream of traveling into the upper level of the earth’s atmosphere some day. Maybe she also saw and took note of the logos plastered on Baumgartner’s helmet, spacesuit, flight capsule, and parachute.

In the months since Baumgartner’s jump, the Food and Drug Administration released information showing a link between energy drinks and injuries and deaths. In November, the FDA published adverse injury reports related to energy drink consumption that took place from January 1, 2004, to October 23, 2012. Red Bull was cited in 21 adverse reports, with four hospitalizations and no deaths. 5-Hour Energy was cited in 92 reports, with 33 hospitalizations and 13 deaths. Monster products were listed in 40 reports, with 20 hospitalizations and five deaths. Rockstar was listed in 13 reports, with four hospitalizations and no deaths. The information available about those deaths and injuries shows correlation, not causation. In other words, “the fact that an adverse event happened after a person has consumed a product does not necessarily mean that product caused the adverse event,” the FDA report said.

Does that mean anything should be done regarding the study and regulation of energy drinks? In Canada, where the 2008 death of a teen with an irregular heartbeat was linked to consumption of Red Bull, they think so. By the end of 2012, the country will cap caffeine levels in energy drinks at 180 milligrams. A 20-ounce can of Monster Energy and a 24-ounce can of Red Bull wouldn’t make their cut. In the United States, energy drinks don’t fall under such guidelines because they are sold as dietary supplements. “We don’t have energy drinks defined by any regulation,” Daniel Fabricant, the director of the FDA’s dietary supplement division, told The New York Times. “It is a marketing term.”

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