“The whole world is watching now. I wish you could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to get up really high to see how small you are. I’m coming home now.”
Thus spoke Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner as he stood outside the open hatch of the Red Bull Stratos capsule on the morning of October 14. You know what happened next. Looking remarkably composed, the 43-year-old Baumgartner leaned forward and plunged to earth from a height of 128,100 feet, some 24 miles up. During a free fall that lasted 4 minutes, 20 seconds and featured 30 terrifying seconds of dangerous spinning and tumbling, Baumgartner broke the sound barrier, hitting a top speed of 833.9 miles per hour, or Mach 1.24. Eight million people watched him live on YouTube, in a Twitter-fueled media moment that exploded around the world.
Not everything went smoothly, of course. Owing to Baumgartner’s thick accent and static in the transmission, you couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. But you could hear Joe Kittinger as he talked to Baumgartner from the ground. A folksy retired Air Force colonel, Kittinger, 84, served as mission control’s primary contact with the balloon-lifted capsule, and he also happened to hold nearly all the skydiving records Baumgartner was trying to break that day. After calmly taking Baumgartner through a 40-point safety checklist, Kittinger sent him off with these memorable words: “Start the cameras, and our guardian angel will take care of you.”
Start the cameras. Notice how Kittinger dealt with the practicalities before moving on to the poetry. At this point in the jump, 15 cameras affixed to the capsule—three inside and 12 outside—were already running, documenting Baumgartner’s two-and-a-half-hour rise to the stratosphere and his various preparations for the eventual leap. Four cameras attached to his thighs would capture the moment when he broke the sound barrier. But Kittinger was also reminding Baumgartner to turn on a capsule-mounted unit that would photograph his plunge frame by frame. The images wouldn’t have much scientific value, but they would help Red Bull sell the drama in future marketing campaigns.
That was important, too. Because, as Baumgartner himself told me later that day, “Somehow you have to finance a project like this.”
IF RED BULL STRATOS seemed a little like the A-Team playing NASA in the desert, that’s because it was. Five years in the making, Stratos was the largest single event in the history of the Austrian company in terms of personnel, expense, and man-hours. At least 300 people were on hand in southern New Mexico to make sure Baumgartner got off the ground and returned to it alive. While Red Bull is always cagey about what it spends on its promotional efforts, the company reportedly invested $65 million in this stunt.
And make no mistake: it was a stunt. For nearly two years, Red Bull billed the project as a “mission to the edge of space” and the “ultimate scientific experiment.” But if you know anything about Red Bull—which has sponsored everything from Las Vegas motorcycle jumps to cutting-edge climbing expeditions—you know that it didn’t shell out that much cash in pursuit of pure knowledge. Stratos was a brand booster, and it will go down in history as a smash. Red Bull doesn’t release sales figures, so it’s impossible to estimate the project’s impact on the company’s bottom line, but half of the worldwide trending topics on Twitter that day were Stratos related. Nearly every newscast that night included a segment about the jump, and by morning images of Baumgartner’s plunge had made their way around the planet—with Red Bull logos visible from every camera angle.
Stratos was such a success that, looking back, it’s easy to forget how unlikely it seemed that it would happen at all, right down to the morning of the 14th. The effort had suffered so many setbacks in its five-year existence that even a few of the 75 international journalists assembled at the Stratos site on that Sunday—a jumble of temporary buildings and equipment set up by the main runway of the Roswell International Air Center—were making cracks about the company that cried supersonic. In 2010, the year the project was announced, Baumgartner began suffering anxiety attacks while wearing the pressurized suit that protected him at altitude. Stratos was put on hold until he got his mojo back, with help from sports psychologist Michael Gervais.