Red Bull Stratos Exhibit Lands at Air Force Museum on Way to Smithsonian

  • Jan 24, 2014 1:21pm GMT

Other than running the risk of hypothermia, hypoxia, ultraviolet radiation, or having one’s blood boil, oh – and the possibility of entering an uncontrolled spin that can scramble human organs– a free-fall parachute jump from 127,000 feet looks pretty fun. Make mine supersonic.

That’s the takeaway from yesterday’s reception heralding the opening of the new ‘Red Bull Stratos’ exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force (NMUSAF). It’s on temporary display through March 16, after which it makes its way to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum for permanent exhibit.

I was privileged yesterday to meet three stars of the historic mission, Technical Project Director Art Thompson, Project Medical Director Jonathan Clark, M.D., and retired Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger, who oversaw Flight Operations and Safety and served as Capcom I. Red Bull brought the trio to Dayton for the opening to meet the press, tell their tales, and share a wealth of data and video imagery last night to an invited audience.

The Red Bull Stratos exhibit is prominently located in the Modern Flight Gallery. It graphically documents the record-setting jump – 127,852 feet, to be exact – by Austrian Felix Baumgartner on October 14, 2012 out of a capsule suspended beneath a 55-story tall helium-filled balloon. In fact the exhibit’s centerpiece is the space-age capsule with Baumgartner’s high-tech full-pressure suit encased nearby. The accompanying displays and videos provide an enlightening glimpse into the planning, training and science behind the mission, and of course the triumphant result.

The success of Red Bull Stratos over Roswell, New Mexico was the culmination of a five year effort by an assembled team of experts including THE man – Colonel Kittinger – who originally set the jump record of 102,800 feet back in 1960 during the Air Force’s ‘Project Excelsior.’ Baumgartner broke two of Kittinger’s ‘Excelsior’ records – highest freefall and highest manned balloon flight. Kittinger retains the record for longest freefall, but Baumgartner set another record known as “Maximum Vertical Speed (without drogue)” – 843.6 mph or Mach 1.25 – a.k.a. First to Go Supersonic Without the Benefit of Being in an Aircraft (my title). During the Excelsior jump, the plummeting Kittinger reached “only” 614 mph.

However, as Kittinger, Clark and Thompson each mentioned to the rapt audience last night, their proudest achievement was the Red Bull Stratos project’s contributions to better scientifically understanding the extreme conditions near space, its effects on humans, and overall aerospace safety. Given the current growth of the commercial space industry, such data and experience will no doubt prove valuable (think emergency evacuation, as in bailing out of a sub-orbital spacecraft. Ouch).

Should you make it to Dayton in time to catch this remarkable Red Bull Stratos exhibit, it’s worth note that the NMUSAF is permanent home to the “Excelsior” exhibit, featuring the gondola (very much NOT a capsule) from which Kittinger made his pioneering leap in 1960. The ‘Excelsior’ exhibit is in the Missile Gallery, probably apt, given that’s what Kittinger and Baumgartner effectively became as they hurtled toward Mother Earth from 20 miles on their respective milestone missions. In the era of Excelsior, the museum noted it was “a time when no one knew if a human could even survive a jump from the edge of space.” Not to mention doing it without benefit of an energy drink or two.