Today, a guy named Felix Bumgartner safely jumped from a balloon in outer space, back to earth. His only equipment was a special suit and a parachute. It was pretty cool. And over 7 million people watched it live online. Red Bull sponsored the jump. So Red Bull basically created its own media event by sponsoring Felix’s endeavor. It was cool. And really good marketing.
But that’s all it was. Regardless of how you might justify this event, whether for the science, the imagination, or whatever, this was a publicity stunt. Bottom line. In generating all those live online impressions, plus all the tweets about it, plus all the hype leading up to it, Red Bull struck gold.
I like Red Bull. A lot. I think their brand is the Mercedes Benz of energy drinks. I drink it every day. But they don’t need to do stuff like this to impress me. Or make me think that consuming their product will make me perform like any of their daredevil stuntmen. But they do these things anyway. And it’s cool. Because there is an element of the population that eats this shit up. It’s probably the same people who watch reality TV. The only reality TV I watch is sports. I love sports. But rarely does anyone live at the edge of death as part of their sport. Sure, someone might suffer a broken neck and become paralyzed in football, and sadly we go gaga over really big hits that nearly decapitate players, but mostly sports are just unscripted events where the outcomes are based on passion and execution. What Bumgartner did was spectacular. And passionate. Part sport, part Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Mostly the latter. I didn’t watch the event live today. But I’d venture to guess that people who watch reality TV flocked to it. Why? Because someone could have died on television while attempting a stunt. Cool.
This wasn’t important science. This wasn’t man reaching for the stars. This was Evel Knievel with better publicity. When I was a kid the Knievel events were huge. As huge as they could have been during an age when we got four TV channels and our phones were attached to walls. What was amazing about this event today was how we shared it – in real time. Together. We love that shit in social media. The Super Bowl. The Oscars. Presidential Debates. We flock to things we can share in real time together. Today’s event was like that. And it was spectacular.
But did Red Bull jump the shark? Let’s think about that for a second. When The Fonz jumped the shark on Happy Days he was basically doing an Evel Knievel stunt. With a Jaws twist. It was freaking huge at the time. Everyone tuned in. And it went down in history as one of the biggest mistakes of a popular television show trying to hang on to relevance. I sure hope that’s not the case with Red Bull.
So why did you watch? Because it was important science? Important for human evolution? Because you like Red Bull? Because you thought it might be cool to see a crazy guy’s blood boil before his lifeless body bounced limply on the ground? No, you watched it because the machine of publicity told you to. You watched it for the exact same reason that we used to watch Evel Knievel jump shit in the 70s.
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Oct 14, 2012
Actually, it was science. Baumgartner has been trying to get funding to explore near space escape from high altitude aircraft since one of the astronauts he knew personally was killed in the 2003 Challenger re-entry accident. The most unfortunate part of this thing is maybe that someone like Red Bull had to fund this jump and not NASA. If you actually read about the research and work that went into the jump it’s pretty incredible–there are all kinds of things that can go wrong (and apparently nearly did today) including losing control, vision and consciousness and being unable to activate chute and controls, etc. He worked to develop a very specialized suit and equipment to help combat this. With companies like Space-X and Virgin getting into commercial space flight, this kind of jump or ‘non-vehicular descent’ actually starts factoring into the equation and definitely bears further exploration. Sure, today was a good publicity stunt for Red Bull, but they actually probably did some good along the way. Sometimes it pays to research a bit before being so harshly cynical, no?
Oct 14, 2012
I didn’t have any issues with Red Bull sponsoring this. But as one of my facebook friends said… we should have an issue that ONLY Red Bull sponsoring it. It appears we’ve reduced NASA to spectating.
Totally agree with Lynne.
Oct 14, 2012
Hell, I don’t care. It was good TV. 😀
More to your point though, will this make anyone drink more Red Bull? (No.) The real winner here might be GoPro, actually. (The makers of the portable HD cameras used to film a lot of the mission and jump.)
But you know what? It felt like a throwback to the heroes of the space program, “The Right Stuff” days of daredevil test pilots and near-space gear testing. There was the Mach1 challenge too, of seeing what would happen if a man outside of a vehicle broke that threshold. There was a lot of equipment testing going on there, from comms to parachutes to cameras. We’ve probably also learned a thing or two about physiology, about what happens to a human being when they fall from that height. Did you notice his wild spin for a bit before he stabilized? Was he passed out? Was he lucid? We’re going to learn quite a bit from that jump.
There’s also this: The US space program has been so gutted by budget cuts that American astronauts now have to hitch rides on foreign rockets to get into space. And yet an energy drink company almost single-handedly rebooted our passion for manned space adventures in just one afternoon. Think about that. A stupid energy company made space cool again. Was it a stunt? Sure. No new flags on the Moon yet. No footprints on Mars yet either. But I guarantee that there are tons of kids around the world today who will become scientists, engineers, pilots and astronauts someday because of Felix’s jump. And that’s very cool. If Red Bull can do stuff like this, why can’t NASA? Maybe there’s a new model here: Partnerships with sponsors, smaller projects, cooler missions. Less geek, more swagger.
Lastly: What we saw today showed us that space is accessible to anyone with an idea and the money. The democratization of space? Maybe not. But it makes you think and dream a bit, doesn’t it? You don’t have to be a NASA astronaut to go up there anymore. 🙂
Oct 15, 2012
I watched because it was on when I turned the TV on (the last viewer had left it on Discovery).
Red Bull sponsors my favorite Formula 1 team. The Red Bull Team is awesome with Mark Webber (an Aussie) and Sebestian Vettel (a German.) F1 is part science, part adrenaline, part strategy…and I’ve really come to love it thanks to my husband who has schooled me in it. Red Bull dominates high-risk taking sports with their sponsored teams and endorsements. It’s their brand and this is how they choose to market it. I don’t drink Red Bull, tried a sip once and spat it out. Ugh.
Until yesterday, I had no notion of this near space jumping. I watched because like those who happen by a bridge jumper, morbid curiosity keeps us glued. It almost made me ill. Man I prayed for that dude.