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Across the Universe: Documenting Felix Baumgartner’s 'Space Jump'

In one l-o-n-g drop on Oct. 14, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner proved that a man in a spacesuit could fall safely back to Earth from more than 24 miles up. He also proved that it’s possible to get outstanding video of the event and broadcast it live to millions on the internet.

Pilot Felix Baumgartner prepares to jump from the altitude of 29,455 meters (96,637 feet) during the second manned test flight for Red Bull Stratos on July 25, 2012. Photo by Jay Nemeth/Red Bull Content Pool

Baumgartner floated to the edge of space in Stratos, a pressurized capsule hung from a helium balloon. At a height of 128,100 ft., he stepped away from the capsule, fell freely for nearly 23 miles (reaching a maximum speed of 834 miles per hour and breaking the sound barrier), then drifted to the ground on a parachute.

The event was captured by cameras stuffed into the capsule and by ground-based cameras with massive lenses, and relayed live to YouTube for a worldwide audience of 52 million. The primary sponsor for Baumgartner’s space jump was beverage maker Red Bull, and its media group—Red Bull Media House—pulled together all the cameras and necessary communications equipment.

“We knew that the technology existed to document the project,” says Charlie Rosene, executive producer for Red Bull Media House North America, in Santa Monica, Calif. “But how do you combine established, military-grade tools with state-of-the-art high-definition digital broadcast equipment so the world could experience this project from an intimate front-row seat?”

Red Bull Media House broadcast the jump live on YouTube. “We have partnered with YouTube for several years and have worked closely with them in developing our digital channel that includes exclusive programming,” Rosene says. “YouTube also gave us a truly global exclusive digital streaming platform, as our goals were to touch not only the U.S. but a worldwide audience.”

But YouTube? How many people would stop to watch something like this on YouTube?

“Just like Felix, we set a few records of our own, including more than eight million concurrent live streams on YouTube and 52 million views during our live presentation,” Rosene says. “Safe to say, we would do it again.”

The jump was also broadcast live on Discovery Channel, where it became the highest rated non-primetime television event in the network’s history.

“OB Truck in A Can”

Four control room monitors in the Red Bull control room follow Baumgartner as he begins his historic jump. Photo by Jörg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool

The Red Bull Stratos capsule was fitted with nine HD video cameras, three Canon HDSLR cameras and three RED 4K cameras, although one of the RED cameras was set to shoot 120 fps at 2K resolution. In addition to all that gear, there were five HD cameras on Baumgartner’s pressure suit, though these units did not provide live images.

Putting the camera systems together was the job of Jay Nemeth, Red Bull Stratos’ director of high-altitude photography. He points out that there’s more to getting images from the edge of space than simply mounting a few cameras. “The electronics cage in our keg-sized housing contained nine P2 HD recorders, a router, nine camera control units, downconverters, audio embedders, SDI cross-converters, 48 channels of GPIO control, telemetry computer, mic preamps, DC regulators, 60 space-rated circuit breakers, telemetry RX/TX radios, video transmitters with power amplifiers, and several other items,” Nemeth says. “We called it the ‘OB truck in a can.’”

There were many technical concerns about the video gear. “There wasn’t much that could be used off-the-shelf without some sort of modification,” Nemeth says. “The near-space conditions created problems with extreme cold, down to -95° at one point, and high temp conditions at the same time that required us to design and build cooling systems with complex heat exchangers. The REDs generate so much heat that we designed nitrogen-filled housings to give the fans a dry convective medium to circulate.”

Nemeth says that the HD video cameras used in the Stratos capsule were proprietary space-rated units that are not made by a manufacturer familiar to the video community.

The live broadcast broke a YouTube viewing record and Red Bull’s official recap generated millions more views.

The camera system design was finalized in 2009, which meant that the project couldn’t take advantage of newer products and developments. “I would have loved to use the RED EPIC on the capsule, but when we were constructing the housings and putting the control system together in early 2009, they weren’t available,” Nemeth says. “It just wasn’t possible to start the design and integration process over.”

Microwave Telemetry
Riedel Communications provided three microwave transmitters in the Stratos capsule, as well as telemetry radios and receive equipment. Red Bull Media had one receive site at mission control in New Mexico, and another one downrange fitted with a FlightLine Films JLAIR long-range optical tracking system.

The signals received downrange were relayed back to mission control using 2 GHz and 18 GHz terrestrial links provided by 3G wireless. Although the production team considered downlinking live video from Baumgartner in freefall, it was deemed a safety hazard by the science team, so the five cameras on Baumgartner’s suit were record-only.

Riedel has worked with Red Bull Media on a variety of projects, such as the Red Bull Air Race, so the company was a part of the space jump project from the beginning. Still, all of Riedel’s previous experience had been within the comforting envelope of the atmosphere, and providing live communications from 24 miles up would be ... well, outside the envelope.

Screens at mission control show Baumgartner’s historic jump. Photo by Jörg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool

“There were number of challenges that were new to us, ranging from color correction and white balance challenges for the cameras due to the change of the atmosphere, to tracking and telemetry tasks that were more demanding than usual,” says Thomas Riedel, president of Riedel Communications of Wuppertal, Germany. “Together with a group of specialists in the Red Bull Stratos team and our own R&D team, we managed to overcome them.”

Live Graphics
Live graphics for Baumgartner’s leap were provided by Vizrt, which supported the project with three Viz Engines, four Viz Trios and a Viz Graphic Hub.

“The biggest challenge was to gather all the data sources from all the different ‘providers’ [capsule telemetry, Felix bio-meds, mission clocks, chest pack information and simulation data calculated in cooperation with the Technical University of Munich] and to deliver them to the world outside of the command center in Roswell, N.M.,” says Petter Ole Jakobsen, Vizrt chief technical officer.

Scott Gillies, director of production and technology for Red Bull Media House North America, was responsible for the technical side of the television production for the space jump. As important as the video feed was, the primary concerns of the entire team were safety and situational awareness.

“We needed a system that would let us see the pilot, flight-train connections and the balloon in real time during the flight,” Gillies says. “Secondly, we needed to see Felix during the descent. These were no small challenges, especially when there are tight timelines and multiple teams working together.”

Baumgartner jumps out of his capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos on Oct. 14, 2012.     Photo by Jay Nemeth/Red Bull Content Pool

How do you create a production system for such an extreme event? “The goal for the Red Bull Media House was to deliver the very best images possible given the constraints of physical space, heating/cooling and power consumption,” Gillies says. “If we could utilize existing technology that was robust enough, then we were pleased, but at the same time we wanted to push the envelope wherever possible.”

Despite pundits who decry today’s media landscape as fractured and fit only for those with attention spans measured in seconds, attracting 52 million views to a live nine-minute video is a significant accomplishment. Gillies notes that viewers didn’t tune in to see the gear. “To make compelling content, the story and technology have to go hand in hand. One cannot outshine the other,” he says.

If you missed the live broadcast, there is a recap on YouTube and plenty of other videos available, including a documentary co-produced by BBC and National Geographic. That documentary aired on National Geographic Channel on Nov. 11, and it included previously unseen video from one of the cameras mounted on Baumgartner during the jump.

In the 1960s, Star Trek introduced us to the phrase, “Space, the final frontier.” With the tremendous successes (and some sad failures) of space pioneers from Earth, we may think that there is nothing really new about space—certainly nothing that warrants a huge television audience.

But maybe it took an “energy drink” to re-energize at least one aspect of space: How one man can face it and return safely to Earth. In HD, of course.   

In-Flight Cameras
Capsule:
- Nine high-definition cameras, each individually recording to solid-state recorders and each routed to one of three digital video transmitters for live viewing on Earth
- Three 4K (4,000 x 2,000-pixel) digital cinematography cameras
- Three high-resolution digital still cameras
- Pressurized electronics “keg” containing more than 125 electronic components and approximately two miles of wiring

Pressure Suit:
- Five small high-definition video cameras: two on each thigh and one on Felix’s chest pack