The documentary "14 Minutes From Earth," which just premiered on Netflix, shows the secrecy behind, and the excitement following, the highest free-fall jump ever.
The 2016 film follows the adventures of Google executive Alan Eustace in his quest to make the highest-ever skydive — and to do so without benefit of a rocket or even a protective ascent capsule, such as the one used by previous record-holder Felix Baumgartner.
The then 57-year-old Eustace flew a helium-filled balloon more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) above New Mexico on Oct. 24, 2014, before releasing a cord and falling solo toward Earth. As the documentary shows, making the jump was a difficult decision for Eustace. He had the chance to make history, but his wife and others in his life were not fully on board with the idea.
It was also a crazy journey for Jerry Kolber, who directed and wrote "14 Minutes From Earth" with Adam "Tex" Davis, Trey Nelson and Erich Sturm. At the time, Kolber recalled in an interview with Space.com, he was a producer and writer for the National Geographic show "Brain Games." He'd be working on set in New York when a call would come from Eustace's people that a practice jump was coming up.
Since Kolber was filming under a non-disclosure agreement, this meant repeated, sudden and mysterious disappearances from his responsibilities in New York to fly west and drive several hours to a remote area of Colorado, New Mexico or other location, he said.
The joke around the office was that he had to be working on an alien documentary, especially with the New Mexico link, Kolber said. (Roswell, New Mexico, is famous for a 1947 incident that some people believe involved the crash of an alien vessel. In reality, the debris on the ground came from a balloon that was monitoring the atmosphere for signs of Soviet nuclear tests, experts say.)
Kolber's response to colleagues at the time? "I can neither confirm nor deny I'm making a documentary about aliens."
Kolber's desire to do a space-related documentary dates back to the early 2000s, when he got in touch with Jane Poynter, a participant in the Biosphere 2 mission. Biosphere 2 was an Arizona experiment meant to demonstrate how humans could live in a closed system, with plants supplying food and oxygen, for example.
It didn't go very well, at least as far as that main mission goal was concerned.. Two experiments — from 1991 to 1993, and from March to September 1994 — faced problems such as plants and animals dying, as well as interpersonal issues within the group.
While Poynter wrote a book about the Biosphere 2 experience, she discouraged Kolber from doing a documentary, saying that some of the participants weren't on speaking terms and others saw it as "water under the bridge," he said.
But Poynter believed in Kolber's work in general, because she was a big fan of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," a 2003-2007 television series that Kolber helped produce, in which gay men tried to help straight men gain confidence through makeovers.
Poynter is also a co-founder of Paragon Space Development, which creates life-support systems for extreme environments. She and Kolber became friends, and eventually, he got a mysterious phone call saying that Eustace wanted to speak with him about a Paragon project. He had to sign a non-disclosure agreement even before he got on the phone.
The two ended up speaking for hours, Kolber said. Kolber was so fascinated by the project that he spent the next several years tracking Eustace's journey. As for his favorite part of the documentary, he says it's the first parachute jump.
"It is an absolute nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat adrenaline scene in the context of great engineering," Kolber said.
"14 Minutes From Earth" is available on Netflix in the United States and Canada. Check with your local Netflix to see if it is available in your country.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace