World of Sport

Five reasons why Baumgartner’s jump was not that great… unless you work in PR

World of Sport

Before this piece gets going, World of Sport will admit that it, like everyone else in the world, smiled in glee and disbelief at the awesome images of Felix Baumgartner skydiving to earth from 24 miles up on Sunday. It was a great show.

But since then WoS has had a nagging feeling that it has been had.

The whole thing was orchestrated so well by Red Bull's exquisitely oiled PR machine that WoS almost bought it hook, line and sinker. But now, looking back, there are just too many things which make it wonder if the whole thing wasn't really quite as magical as it first seemed.

So here are the five reasons why Baumgartner's jump was more about smoke and mirrors than balloons and parachutes.

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1. The fake mission control

Part of the appeal of the live show - watched by a record eight million people, apparently - was the sight of clever-looking people being pictured back in some sort of office, orchestrating every move. But they were doing no such thing, of course.

NASA's space shuttles needed mission controls with everyone shouting at each other via their headsets because they were dealing with a machine containing 2.5 million moving parts (that's a fact, incidentally, not a far-fetched guesstimate to make a point).

By contrast, Baumgartner used a balloon to ascend, and a parachute to descend. The most complicated pieces of kit he used, by far, were the cameras used to relay the pictures back to earth.

2. The dubious danger of the suit ripping

We'll admit, we were initially sucked in by fabulous stories of what would happen if things went wrong with Baumgartner's suit. "His blood will vaporise instantly if the suit rips!" we repeated to each other. But it didn't. Of course it didn't, and it never would have. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent designing, testing, building in triple-engineered safeguards and re-checking things time and again to make sure that it would not rip. This wasn't Graeme Obree making an Olympics-winning bike in his garage, it was the finest high-tech engineering from across the world brought together.

Consider this: the previous holder of the skydive height record, Captain Joe Kittinger of the US Air Force, jumped from 108,000 feet (compared to Baumgartner's 128,000 feet) in 1960 in a suit that was literally held together with duct tape. Now THAT suit could have ripped; Baumgartner's, not so much.

3. The pretend danger of breaking the sound barrier

Ever since Chuck Yeager broke the technical and psychological barrier of surpassing the speed of sound over 60 years ago, there has been little mystery about doing so - indeed, even commercial airline passengers used to do so regularly on Concorde. The very words "sonic boom" suggest some sort of explosion to be endured at the magical speed; but that does not happen. An object travelling faster than sound is merely one going very fast indeed - the boom is just an effective doubling of the vehicle's normal sound level when the sound waves lap into each other. It's noisy, sure, but it ain't dangerous.

4. The strange idea that a spin would have been fatal

"It was like hell," Baumgartner said of the spin which began shortly after his jump. "I thought for a few seconds I'd lost consciousness." Leaving aside the inherent contradiction in that statement, let's have a look at what would have happened if the worst had happened and the flat spin had continued. Again, Kittinger's antics over half a century ago show the way: during his first edge-of-the-atmosphere jump he leapt from 76,400 feet, went into a spin, fell unconscious... and was saved by an automatic-opening mechanism fitted to his parachute. You can be pretty sure that if they had one of those in 1959 they had one last Sunday.

5. The suspicious amount of free advertising Red Bull have gotten out of it

When you see a story like Baumgartner's jump all round the world, all at once, it means one thing: a colossal public relations effort behind the scenes. Millions of dollars were poured into the skydive in an effort to make it seem at once hare-brained and colossally dangerous - the former being a complete fallacy and the latter massively exaggerated.

The pay-off, however, is genuinely incalculable. Buying out the front page of almost every newspaper and website in the world, getting into the opening credits of every TV and online news programme, and generating thousands of pages of subsequent follow-up stories, Tweets and conversations around the watercooler is PR that money simply could not buy.

It's genuinely impossible to put a price on such coverage; but if the $30 million guesstimate of the overall project costs is accurate, Red Bull have gotten themselves the greatest bargain in the history of advertising.

And WoS has just realised that it is adding to that with these very words - so it will leave it there...

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