free falling, that is

In 1960, Joe Kittinger, then an Air Force captain, jumped from a balloon 19 miles above the New Mexico desert. He fell 85,000 feet-more than four and a half minutes- before his parachute opened. At times the temperature was as much as 94 degrees below zero and he was falling at more than 700 mph.

All of this was done in an effort to study and cure problems associated with very high bailouts from aircraft. He subsequently made two more ultra-high-altitude jumps and much of what was learned was applied to Project Mercury, America's first program that put men in orbit.

Kittinger had been chosen as the guinea pig to test a newly developed parachute system. These three jumps began in 1959, but it was the one that lifted off the desert floor at 5:29 a.m., on August 16, 1960 that was the most phenomenal. By 7 a.m., the helium filled balloon had reached 102,800 feet, when Captain Kittinger stepped into the morning sky. He fell to 96,000 feet before a small parachute opened to provide stability. As he fell, he reached the unbelievable speed of 714 mph, breaking the sound barrier. When he finally landed, he had fallen 13 minutes, 45 seconds, and had experienced, what was at that time, the longest free fall ever, as well as the highest parachute jump. Years later, he reached what had to be his lowest point.

This same man, who had enjoyed such heights, both physically and emotionally, became a POW during the Vietnam War. On May 11, 1972, while flying an F-4 Pantom jet, Captain Kittinger was shot down near Hanoi. He spent 11 months as a prisoner in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton". Tortured and in solitary confinement, He survived by planning an around the world balloon flight when freed. He never made that flight but he was eventually freed and retired from the Air Force in 1978. He has spent the remaining years making incredible balloon flights all over the world.

He set a world record in 1983 by flying a helium balloon from Las Vegas to Franklinville, N.Y., in a record 72 hours. In order to attain the required speed, he dumped everything on board, over board, and landed wearing only his underwear. He continues flying today.

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