Oct 31, 2013
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At 12:07 p.m. local time on Sunday, October 14th 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner sat up and stood next to the ledge of his capsule. Dangling over 24 miles above the Earth's surface from the largest manned helium balloon ever made, Baumgartner gave a stiff salute and gasped into his radio, "I know the whole world is watching now. I wish you could see what I can see." At 12:08 p.m., he jumped.
At one point in the two-and-a-half-hour ascent from New Mexico's Roswell International Air Center, and the 11-minute descent that followed, eight million users were simultaneously watching the Stratos mission live on YouTube. Not exactly the whole world, but enough to break the site's live-streaming record, a mere 500,000 just months before during the London Olympics. (And it was likely more viewers than Breaking Bad had for its final episode.) Nearly a year later, no other live event on Google's video sharing site has managed to usurp Red Bull Stratos in terms of viewership.
Staring down at our planet's horizon, Baumgartner might have gotten carried away with the hyperbole, but his wish that we could see what he could see seems odd. We did see what he could see. In fact, due to the work put in by Scott Gilles, director of technical production for Red Bull Media House, and Jay Nemeth, director of high-altitude cinematography for Red Bull Stratos, we could see some things that even Baumgartner himself couldn't see—the iconic shot of him standing outside his capsule with Earth's impossibly large horizon below; his harrowing, almost inhuman, flatspin as he reentered the atmosphere. He fell farther and faster than any human had before, and we had a great vantage point to watch the whole thing.
From the outset of the Stratos mission, both Gilles and Nemeth wanted production values far exceeding what the public had come to expect from the world's biggest space cinematography house: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "[NASA] just wants to see the astronauts and see what's going on. They don't like to think about it cinematically," says Nemeth, who founded a space cinematography firm of his own, Flightline Films. While Gilles and Nemeth's main mandate from mission control was safety — ensuring that the rest of the Stratos team could see and hear Felix at all times — the larger challenge was providing the audience with a production that would rival the mission itself in terms of engineering prowess. The production team began their quest long before the engineers had even finished the capsule. Just as a director of photography studies a set, Nemeth's team, equipped with a slew of cameras, began to analyze the capsule's chromoly frame in 2010, determining the positions and the types of cameras he wanted to shoot with.
"We had a person stand on the step, and we took pictures from all various angles," he said. "We knew exactly what kind of shots we wanted to get. It wasn't going to be some haphazard, 'Let's stick the camera wherever we can.'"
After their initial scouting session, Jay and his team had their camera placements specified down to the millimeter, and their payload established: Nine high-definition cameras, three 4K cameras, and three DSLRs. On Baumgartner himself, the team embedded five GoPro cameras into his pressure suit. Watching from the ground would be two Joint Long-range Aerospace Imaging and Relay (JLAIR) units—using a combination of telescopes and short-wave infrared cameras to visually track Baumgartner and the capsule all the way up to their final altitude of 127,852.4 feet. Additionally, once Baumgartner had deployed his canopy after freefalling for an estimated 6 minutes, a helicopter would be nearby to provide aerial footage of him drifting back to Earth under parachute.
Even though the rest of the mission relied on bespoke engineering, due to their budget, the production team had to rely on existing consumer technologies.
"If you want to talk about skyrocketing costs, then yes, you could custom-build a camera," says Gilles. "Or you could find off-the-shelf equipment that you could modify and space-rate," adds Nemeth.
Anyone can purchase the same equipment used by the Stratos production team, but modifying them to survive in the stratosphere is no easy feat. After space-rating cameras for over 25 years, Nemeth knows exactly what happens to electronics as they're lifted 24 miles into the sky. Even though temperatures can dip well below -100 F, the lack of atmosphere leaves little air to wick heat away. Another problem arises when the intense, unshielded rays of the sun warm one side of the capsule while the other cools, causing circuit boards to warp and potentially fail due to the extreme difference in temperature. And other components, Nemeth says, such as electrolytic capacitors or traditional hard drives either explode or simply do not work.
To space-rate their wide variety of cameras, Nemeth, predictably, needed to find an assortment of solutions. The cameras needed to function both on the ground and at altitude. Affording them too much protection from the stratosphere could cause them to fail at the start of the mission. Nemeth needed to find a balance between the two.
The team placed the HD cameras in a reflective housing to keep them shielded from the sun, and attached metal contacts from the camera body to wick heat away, while added vents let them breathe on the ride up. The RED cameras, due to the massive amount of heat they generated, required an enclosed, pressurized housing filled with dry nitrogen gas. All of the cameras were wired with custom control units so Nemeth could remotely adjust and fire them from the ground, and a nano-polymer coating was added to their lenses to prevent condensation and ice from forming.
To support this multi-camera setup, the production team needed to load the capsule with more than a few extra memory cards. Atop the capsule, in what the engineering team called "The Attic" sat "The Keg," a cylinder containing a dense mass of two and a half miles of wire connecting a bevy of hardware that would make any A/V enthusiast dizzy with excitement.
"It was basically like a 45-foot production truck that would cover a football game, crammed into this beer-keg sized object," says Nemeth. Not only was the keg responsible for controlling all the cameras aboard, recording footage, and regulating power; but also for beaming back picture and audio back to mission control, which then could feed the video to YouTube and over 80 channels worldwide. It, too, was sealed in pressurized nitrogen environment, and was laced with tubes of continually circulating glycol to keep it cool.
Every component of the 400-pound audiovisual payload aboard the capsule was subjected to multiple tests within a hyperbaric chamber.
"The way all this space-rating of equipment starts is you take the item you want to use, stick it in a chamber that would take it to 130,000 feet through the temperature profiles, and you watch it fail," says Nemeth. "Then you'd take it out and figure out why it failed — did it get too cold, did it get too hot, was it a pressure situation? Then try to solve the problem and stick it back into the chamber."
Even components as simple as buttons were put through the same level of testing as the cameras. One big red button, placed on the outside of the capsule as a backup in case Nemeth was unable to remote trigger the still cameras, failed as soon as the team put it into the hyperbaric chamber.
"[It] froze up. You could hit it as hard as you wanted, but it wouldn't press," says Nemeth. His team went through multiple combinations of lubricants and o-rings until the button finally worked in high atmospheric conditions. "That's why it took years of testing," says Gilles. "Every switch, breaker, camera, camera housing, recorder, had to go through this process." Even with all of their space-rated equipment, there was still a large amount of unpredictability in maintaining a reliable connection with the capsule.
"You never know what will happen at that atmosphere," says Gilles.
As far as the production team was concerned, all of the preparations would be for naught if they suddenly lost the capsule's video feed.
"One of the important things was to never have a single point of failure in the system," says Nemeth.
So, they installed three redundant transmitters. With three separate points of connection, the production team could swap their video feed to the strongest transmitter on the fly.
When it came time to submit a stripped-down version of the camera system to it's first real world test, all of their careful planning and rigorous testing seemed to pay off.
"For years we tried to imagine and simulate some of these shots," says Gilles. "But there really was nothing like the first time we put the unmanned capsule up there and saw the footage. I was stunned."
With each successful test flight, the team gradually restored the system's full capabilities. The first two unmanned flights featured just one of each major component — one HD camera, one transmitter, and one RAM recorder — along with six "record only" cameras independent of the system to document the flight.
For Baumgartner's first test flight, the team installed the full nine-HD-camera-array as well as one of the 4K cameras. "As we expected, there were minor issues on every test flight, but we were able to gather data that helped us refine the final design," say Gilles. By the time Baumgartner and the Stratos team were ready to conduct their second test jump in July, the production team was ready to test the full system. The ascent and descent went off as planned, but the capsule hit the ground hard. The rough landing completely destroyed three of the HD camera housings mounted on the bottom of the capsule, and damaged the frame of the keg.
The team rebuilt and repaired. And when Felix finally climbed into his capsule, flew to the edge of space, and jumped out on October 12, the cameras never left him.
"I'm very thankful that we put in backup, because at one point or another, they all came into play," says Gilles. "There was never a point where we sat in the dark, or didn't have the images," adds Nemeth. "We were able to cover the mission from beginning to end, uninterrupted."
For more on Stratos mission story, check out Red Bull's documentary: Mission to the Edge of Space, out now. Qualcomm Atheros Inc. is a component supplier for GoPro.