You have probably heard about – or done – some form of extreme free-fall, be it sky diving, bungee jumping, or base jumping. But how many people can claim to skydive from an altitude that was almost out of the atmosphere? Joseph Kittinger can, and he still holds a number of records due to one particular jump: the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest free-fall, and fastest speed by man through the atmosphere.

Through his participation in the government run Project Man High, Project Excelsior, and Project Stargazer, Joseph Kittinger not only broke many human aerial records, but also managed to pioneer early space exploration research. Due to his willingness to fly in a balloon beyond most of the atmosphere, Kittinger gathered much valuable data about how humans react to being so incredibly high.

In 1949, Kittinger joined the U.S. Air Force as an aviation cadet and earned his wings. He quickly got into experimental aviation, flying as a NATO test pilot in Germany until 1953, when he was reassigned to the U.S. In 1955 Kittinger flew at 632 mph in John Paul Stapp’s rocket-sled experiment, testing the effects of gravitational stress on the human body.

The skill of Kittinger’s flying led Stapp to recruit him for Project Man High, which used high-altitude balloons to study cosmic rays and determine if human beings were capable of going into space. On June 2, 1957, Kittinger made his first high-altitude ascent in a balloon – it lasted almost seven hours and took him to an altitude 96,760 feet.

After this flight, Kittinger was transferred to Project Excelsior (meaning “ever upward”). For this project, those who went up would take the fastest route down – by jumping out of the balloon in a pressurized suit. Kittinger’s first jump, which occurred on November 16, 1959, was a near disaster. After jumping from an altitude of 76,000, Kittinger’s small parachute malfunctioned, opening early and catching Kittinger around the neck, causing him to spiral down towards Earth and lose consciousness. Luckily, his emergency automatic parachute activated at 10,000 feet, saving his life. Despite this near-death experience, Kittinger still flew a few more Project Excelsior missions. A month after the first flight, he successfully jumped from 74,700 feet and set a record for free-fall length (55,500 feet).

On August 16, 1960, Kittinger made his most famous free-fall. In this flight, he made it up to an altitude of 102,800 feet, breaking a previous record made by David Simons during Project Man High. He stayed at this altitude for about 12 minutes, which must have been very unpleasant – not only was it as cold as 94 minus Fahrenheit, but he had a severe pain in his right hand from a malfunctioning pressurized glove. Then, he jumped. He fell for almost five minutes before reaching a safe altitude to open his main parachutes and float down to the ground. In this time, he went as fast as 614 MPH – not quite breaking the sound barrier, as some claimed he had, but still achieving the fastest speed by man through the atmosphere.

Kittinger’s high-flying career was not over after this record-breaking fall. In 1962, as a part of Project Stargazer, he spent over eighteen hours at an altitude of 82,200 feet, performing more research into the affects of the atmosphere on telescopes and the long-term effects of high-altitude environments on the human body. This was to be his last high-altitude balloon flight.

Later on in life, Kittinger went on to fly in the Vietnam war, performing 483 missions before being shot down and held as a prisoner of war for almost a year. After he came back to the U.S., he proceeded to balloon across the country and entered into many ballooning contests. In 1983 he set a record for flying a balloon from Las Vegas to New York in under 72 hours. A year later became the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon, setting a record for the longest solo balloon flight at 83 hours and 40 minutes. To this day, Kittinger is still involved with flight as an aviation consultant and sometimes barnstormer.

Update 14 October 2012: Today Felix Baumgartner broke Kittinger’s record by free-falling from 39 kilometres up via helium balloon. Joseph Kittinger, aged 84, participated as capsule communicator.