Timberlake: Red Bull Stratos is not science

Ian Timberlake

Standing on a floating ledge with a 128,000-foot view of the world, blue below and black above, I am sure Felix Baumgartner felt nothing less than complete and total nirvana. What goes up, must come down.

He jumped.

Plummeting at 834 mph, 162 mph faster than the speed of sound at that altitude, Baumgartner officially became the first human to break the sound barrier unaided nor protected by a vehicle.

This is not science, as many of the 8 million live YouTube followers might have lead you to swallow.

In the sense of research and discovery, this jump had nothing to do with modern science. Baumgartner and his Red Bull Team Stratos utilized what was already known in science to make a safe and successful landing for the daredevil stunt. 

From the capsule, to the pressure suit, to the helium-filled balloon, to the parachute, this skydive from the stratosphere was a harmonious symphony of applied science — but certainly no “giant leap for mankind”.

Sure, we now know definitively that humans can make a safe reentry from the middle of the stratosphere, though this isn’t even close to what we consider “space”. Touted as “#SpaceJump” on Twitter, the jump has over 100,000 feet to go before you leave the stratosphere and enter the mesosphere. “Space” is considered to be 62 miles high; Baumgartner was at 24 miles. The International Space Station orbits at 200 miles; it was hardly a test of emergency human reentry that the project website claims it was.

We also know officially that a human can break the sound barrier unaided, but everything we already knew about science told us that this would be possible and safe.

Not to detract from Baumgartner’s accomplishment, I was glued to the live YouTube video for its entirety, over two hours. How vapid of me.

Baumgartner’s jump was astonishing, a true spectacle and completely bad-ass; simultaneously, it would have been laughable if this were a NASA, U.S. Air Force or SpaceX mission.

Baumgartner is an amateur in the world of high-altitude feats and technology. I will equate it to that of hobby rocketry. An amateur rocket enthusiast (such as myself) has yet to place a hobby rocket into orbit (they have placed one into “space”); the day they do put a hobby rocket into orbit will be an amazing feat of accomplishment, not of science.

Memes appeared the day of Baumgartner’s great accomplishment, hopefully tongue-in-cheek, representing Red Bull taking over America’s space program. Some of them were quite humorous — replacing the NASA logo with the Red Bull logo on the Space Shuttle. I sure as hell hope not.

A friend of mine also in aerospace engineering made an observant note, rightly so, that in the days following Red Bull Stratos, no professor in the department mentioned the jump.

 I can say the same thing, but my professors did in fact discuss Mars Curiosity and Falcon9. At the risk of sounding redundant, Red Bull Stratos was an extreme stunt, not science.

To give credit where credit is due, Baumgartner’s stunt was, in fact, an inspiration for the younger generation. This is something we greatly need in the world, especially America. 

Education, specifically in the math and sciences, is not just in the decline but far below most other major nations in the world. As of 2009, 15-year-olds in the United States ranked 25th among peers from 34 countries in math and science.

Hopefully his jump solicited enough awe in the youth to incline them to pursue technology and science related fields. Unlike fifty years ago, it is unfortunate that actual science no longer works as well as stunts in regards to inspiring the public.

It would have been nice if Red Bull included more scientific educational material during the live broadcast and treated it more as an educational opportunity than as a (literal) publicity stunt. 

Baumgartner attained what he wanted, a world record, and Red Bull got what they wanted, an audience of 8 million and growing. And Joe Kittinger, Baumgartner being his legacy, may have first-handedly witnessed what it takes nowadays to get people interested in science: an extreme stunt sponsored by an energy drink.