December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Felix’s space jump: incredible feat of ingenuity or simply a PR stunt? Maddy Staple explores the consequences for science.


On 14 October 2012, a man leapt from a capsule, fell 128,100 feet, broke the sound barrier, landed safely, and smashed numerous records along the way. Millions of people around the world watched him fall to Earth. His name was Felix Baumgartner.

As PR stunts go, it wasn’t half bad. More than eight million people watched him live; he took over global media for a few days and became a household name. Red Bull was one of the biggest sponsors involved, and there’s no doubt they were in it for the publicity.

Unsurprisingly, having invested seven years and millions of dollars, Red Bull took every opportunity to promote themselves. In the highlight video on YouTube, watched by more than 29 million people, their logo appears 26 times. That amount and quality of publicity is priceless – especially since association with this event fits perfectly with Red Bull’s extreme-sports image.

The man himself, ‘Fearless Felix’, has become an icon. With his good-looking girlfriend and close relationship with his mother, he is a very family-friendly figure. Children in particular love him – he has hero quality. This was heightened by Red Bull, who built tension by reporting that he could die at any moment, recounting the tale of his mentor Joe Kittinger’s spacesuit ripping, swelling his hand to twice its normal size. The whole event was captivating.

The PR capabilities of scientists can be somewhat varied. The results may be exciting and world changing, but can still be presented as a PowerPoint in Comic Sans. This event was the opposite. The concept behind the jump was not complicated: man goes up very high, man jumps, man lands safely on the ground. But it had such window dressing that – just for a short while – it seemed the most exciting thing in the world.

Red Bull doesn’t have a duty to educate, yet this jump was truly accessible. Although the science behind getting Felix there and back was complicated, the premise was simple.

The science background was there too. The documentary Space Dive was well advertised and broadcast all over the world, and the public’s interest was sustained enough for the science to be interesting and engaging.

I believe that technological development was a side effect to the greater goal of an edge-of-your-seat PR stunt. It was welcome. The mission was so successful that it is likely to inspire other big companies to do similar stunts.

As the world stands at the moment, companies like Red Bull can create missions, whilst governments freeze or cut back science funding. With more funding, technology can progress more quickly and generate new innovations. Unfortunately, unlike scientists, companies are not duty-bound to share knowledge. If a breakthrough is made, a sponsor could, theoretically, put pressure on the laboratory and suppress the information, keeping it a secret. The development might not ever reach the general public.

Felix captivated the world. Red Bull had their stunt. Now the focus is on science, and whether the presence of big corporations will aid or hinder it.


IMAGE: Alanna Orpen