Today the Red Bull Stratos mission team provided a first look at the custom camera systems that will record and broadcast Felix Baumgartner’s stratospheric mission in real time and high definition.
The details, announced at capsule manufacturing facility Sage Cheshire Aerospace, reveal that capturing a potentially supersonic freefall from the edge of space may be one of the most complex elements of the Red Bull Stratos mission. But with in-flight cameras mounted on both the capsule and Baumgartner’s space suit, the unique setup holds potential to provide an almost first-hand perspective of what it’s like to bail out in near space and freefall 23 miles above Earth.
When current record-holder USAF Col. (Ret.) Joe Kittinger (pictured below with Felix) jumped from 102,800 feet (50 years ago this month), his team used spring-wound motion picture cameras warmed by hot-water bottles to document his freefall. Red Bull Stratos will use high-definition video cameras and ultra-high-definition 4K digital cinematography cameras so powerful that the challenge will be keeping them cool in an environment where the air is too thin to wick away their prodigious heat.
Ken Arnold, the man who engineered Kittinger’s Project Excelsior camera systems, remembers those pioneering jumps vividly. “I look at the pictures quite often and the one that I’m most proud of is the one where he goes out the door,” Arnold says, citing a heart-stopping shot of Kittinger’s lone form dropping into the void. He adds, “[The cameras] showed us very definitely what happened.”
Like Arnold, Jay Nemeth, the Red Bull Stratos Director of Photography and founder of FlightLine Films, is keenly aware that the mission camera systems he has developed hold responsibility for providing research data. He notes, “The better the quality of the images, the more we give the scientists to look at later and analyze – the little nuances and details that are essential in understanding something that’s never been done: a man breaking the sound barrier with his body.”
“We have basically created a flying video production studio.” -Jay Nemeth
Nemeth also acknowledges that the complexity of the Red Bull Stratos system is a “double-edged sword,” saying, “We will get much more vibrant footage, more angles, more coverage; but we also have to cover more failure modes – there is much more to go wrong.”
Capsule Camera System
The Red Bull Stratos team of world-leading production experts has equipped the capsule with nine high-definition cameras, three 4K digital cinematography cameras and three high-resolution digital still cameras. Of these, four are space-rated units attached to the exterior base of the capsule. Another eight are in pressurized housings also on the exterior of the vessel – the housings are designed to protect the sensitive cameras they contain from the near-vacuum air pressure, ice and extreme heat of the stratospheric conditions.
The remaining three cameras, although positioned on the interior of the capsule, are space rated to withstand the atmospheric extremes once Baumgartner depressurizes the capsule to step out. Supporting all this is a pressurized electronics “keg” that contains approximately two miles of wiring.
The ensemble capsule camera system will allow Mission Control to monitor the ascent visually for any signs of pilot decompression sickness or other safety hazards; record all activity for the benefit of future scientific research; and provide viewers of the worldwide broadcast with perspectives of the capsule, the skyscape and Baumgartner himself.
“We have basically created a flying video production studio,” says Nemeth. “The cameras are remotely controlled from a station in the Mission Control Center, where camera settings can be adjusted and different angles can be chosen for downlink to flight controllers as well as live TV broadcast and webcast viewers at home.”
Recognizing that a single image can crystallize the power of a moment, the Red Bull Stratos team has made still photography a priority as well. “There’s an iconic shot of Joe Kittinger on the cover of LIFE magazine that shows him freefalling against the background of a cloud bank about 15 miles below,” Nemeth marvels.
“It was taken by an automatic camera mounted on the gondola by National Geographic, a 35 millimeter that was cutting-edge at the time – but it used film; it wasn’t digital. We’re so lucky that image survived the journey."
Adventure sports photographer Christian Pondella, who was brought in as a consultant early in the still camera system’s development to provide input on lenses and camera mount positions, opted for still cameras with small bodies yet large resolution, and suggested a 14mm wide-angle lens to capture Baumgartner’s exit from the capsule, as well as a 64-gigabyte flash card that has a high rate of speed in addition to high capacity.
“In my mind I’ve got a vision of an image showing the capsule in one-third of the frame, with Felix dropping away and the Earth below all visible. But there’s a lot of luck involved,” Pondella says. “It’ll all come down to how the balloon and capsule happen to be positioned at that moment.”
Suit Camera System
Some of the most dynamic images will be those captured from Baumgartner’s point of view on his descent. Three small high-definition video cameras will capture three angles of his descent back to Earth. Baumgartner will activate these suit cameras himself, just before he jumps, and, like Baumgartner, they must be able to function in near-space conditions for up to 20 minutes, as well as at the extremes of supersonic speed.
Furthermore, the cameras must provide useable shots regardless of Baumgartner’s orientation: Baumgartner will wear small HD video cameras with opposing views – one on each thigh – plus a camera on his chest pack that will provide a view of his helmet visor.
Luke Aikins, the Aerial Strategist for the Red Bull Stratos team, has skydived with Baumgartner on numerous test jumps, filming the descents. “We’re being careful to make sure that the suit cameras won’t affect Felix’s freefall,” Aikins reports.
“After the mission is over, the team will be able to study his footage and come up with ideas to help people in future endeavors – we hope to see details like what went on with his body position, and even with the fabric, in a way that might be impossible for Felix to perceive.”
“Ultimately, from the time we seal the capsule until I set foot on Earth again, I’m going to be alone,” Baumgartner states. “But thanks to these camera systems, at least I’ll have the reassurance that the mission team should be able to monitor what’s going on visually as well as via radio, and in my mind I’ll know that people all over the world are sharing the experience with me.”
LIVE Red Bull Stratos Broadcast and Webcast
On the day of Baumgartner’s jump, Red Bull Stratos, along with web partners, will provide a LIVE television broadcast and online stream of the activities and stories surrounding his ascent and descent. The final launch date, location and live stream details will be announced in the coming weeks on www.redbullstratos.com, on Twitter (@RedBullStratos), and on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/redbullstratos).