It was one the biggest reality TV moments of our generation, however the 7.5 million concurrent viewers on YouTube yesterday was still well short of the estimated 500 million people who watched the first manned mission to land on the Moon in 1969.
But nevertheless, there were many parallels – for those of us who watched both broadcasts live.
As in 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin, really didn’t know what to expect. They’d grown up on a diet of science fiction stories from the likes of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, so for all anyone knew, there really would be aliens hiding in those lunar craters.
Likewise for 43-year-old Felix Baumgartner – nobody had ever travelled in a balloon so high (at one point reaching 129,000 ft), nor had a free-falling human being ever travelled beyond the speed of sound. Would his face-mask provide enough protection?
What would happen if Baumgartner broke the sound barrier? (around 768 mph) There really was no way of truly knowing – even the height reached by the balloon was an ‘educated’ guess (expected to be somewhere between 120,000 and 130,000 feet).
The Red Bull Stratos team spent five years training and preparing for the mission, that was also designed to improve our scientific understanding of how the body copes with the extreme conditions at the edge of space.
However Baumgartner had two main goals in mind – to beat Joe Kittinger’s 1960 record for the highest free-fall in history (of 102,800 ft) and to travel faster than the speed of sound – exactly 65 years after Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier flying in an experimental rocket-powered airplane.
The mission, as I’m sure you know by now, was a success, with Baumgartner claiming another record – the highest manned balloon flight – along the way. The only record he failed to achieve was the longest freefall record, which was set by his project mentor Joe Kittinger at 4:46-minutes – Baumgartner only managed a 4:19-minute long freefall before pulling his ‘chute.
On This Day
On Sunday, the same day Felix Baumgartner fell at the speed of sound, Chuck Yeager who first broke the sound barrier 65 years ago, took to the skies to repeat the achievement – this time in a brand new U.S. Air Force F-15.
Reaching Mach 1.3, Yeager said that he’d “..laid down a pretty good sonic boom over Edwards Air Force Base”, which clearly amused the retired 89-year old Brigadier General in an interview he gave with CNN.
The interview reminds us that Yeager, like Baumgartner, was no ‘speed demon’, but instead played an important part in the ongoing safety research of the time.
In Yeager’s case, he and his team discovered the importance of a horizontal flying tail on airplanes travelling beyond Mach 1, while Baumgartner’s jump was used to test the latest space suit and how the human body copes at the extreme edges of space.
The most dangerous phase of the mission was in the first minute after Baumgartner stepped off the ledge of his specially designed capsule into the low-density stratosphere. Within the first 40-seconds Baumgartner’s body accelerated from zero to more than 700 mph, initially spinning out-of-control.
Concerns about the power for his visor heater, preoccupied the team prior to the jump and nearly jeopardized the mission as his vision was impaired during the freefall. But he quickly re-gained control of the fall, and moments later opened his parachute as members of the ground crew cheered and viewers around the world heaved a sigh of relief.
“It was an incredible up and down today, just like it’s been with the whole project,” a relieved Baumgartner said afterwards.
“First we got off with a beautiful launch and then we had a bit of drama with a power supply issue to my visor. The exit was perfect but then I started spinning slowly. I thought I’d just spin a few times and that would be that, but then I started to speed up. It was really brutal at times. I thought for a few seconds that I’d lose consciousness. I didn’t feel a sonic boom because I was so busy just trying to stabilize myself. We’ll have to wait and see if we really broke the sound barrier. It was really a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”
During the press conference afterwards Baumgartner explained that he felt far from being an ‘ice cool’ hero, “When I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records any more.. the only thing you want is to come back alive.”
The broadcast was streamed live on YouTube to more than 8 million computers – the largest number of concurrent live streams in the website’s history. And while that might not sound as significant as the typical Saturday-night TV audience, it is considerably more than the 0.5 million peak who watched the London 2012 Olympics.
It is surely a watershed moment for the video sharing site, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the past year as it strives to move away from its user-generated content roots. Despite 7,970 users ‘disliking’ the broadcast (did Felix not go high enough for them?), over 400,000 users gave Baumgartner’s 3-hour broadcast the ‘thumbs up’.
I can just imagine the ripples of alarm across the world’s biggest TV companies as they wonder what the future holds for their businesses – with Google streaming live events and Netflix/Amazon providing on-demand films and drama. Will we still be watching our TV sets a decade from now?