Records were made to be broken, so the saying goes. While this fact is undeniably true, it is also widely known that some records are much harder to break than others. Such is the case with the skydiving height record.
It was on August 16, 1960 that Joe Kittinger of the United States Air Force, jumped out of a balloon that was floating at about 102,800 feet high (about 19.5 miles), which is near the edge of space itself. Why jump from so high? Remember, it was 1960 and the height of the Cold War. At the time, aviation technology was advancing rapidly, which left m,any concerned about the survivability of high-altitude bail-outs. In 1958, the Air Force launched Project Excelsior, which was designed to study such problems in both human and equipment terms.
For the project, the Air Force selected Kittinger, then a captain.
During the course of the project, three high-altitude jumps were made. The first jump was on November 16, 1959, in which Kittinger jumped from over 76,000 feet. In this jump, Kittinger was nearly killed by a tangled parachute. Undaunted, Kittinger made another jump that December, this time from 74,000 feet. This jump went off without a hitch.
Then came the day Kittinger set a record that stands today, 50 years later: August 16, 1960.
This time, the goal was to push the height boundary. Riding in a balloon, Kittinger climbed to an altitude of about 102,800 feet. During the climb, the pressure seal in the right glove of his pressure suit (this is near-space) failed, causing Kittinger to temorarily lose the use of his hand. However, not wanting to abort the test, Kittinger said nothing and rode at over 102,000 feet for 12 minutes until he came overhead the landing zone. When Kittinger jumped out of the balloon, he jumped into the record books and even onto the cover of Life Magazine.
Kittinger’s descent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds, during which he flew through air as cold as -94 Fahrenheit at speeds of up to 614mph.
Since then, the record has gone largely unchallenged, until now.
50 years after Kittingter set the highest skydiving record, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner is attempting to break it, by about 3 miles! The 120,000 foot jump is slated to take place later this year, with an exact date not given. Like Kittinger, Baumgartner will have to face bitter cold, thin air, and free fall speeds that can rip aircraft apart.
As an interesting aside to this story, Baumgartner knows a lot of aerospace legends personally. He has met Neil Armstrong (first man on the Moon) and Alexei Leonov (first space walker). However, only time will tell if Baumgartner breaks Kittinger’s record for highest skydive. After all, some records are tougher to break than others.
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