On the day Joe Kittinger jumped into the void, the New Mexico sky
was astir with clouds as white and light as snowflakes. As the
sun came up on Aug. 16, 1960, Kittinger had climbed into the
gondola of a 25-story helium balloon and ridden it higher than
anyone had ever soared in nonpowered flight--to the fringes of
This is an article from the April 29, 2002 issue
When he reached 102,800 feet above sea level, nearly 20 miles up,
the 31-year-old Air Force test pilot shuffled out of his
pressurized cabin to a platform marked HIGHEST STEP IN THE WORLD.
He took a big gulp of pure oxygen. He said a little prayer. Then
he flopped over the side in a literal leap of faith.
Down he dropped, through the thin, -100[degree] upper atmosphere,
through eerie regions of blinding sunshine and deep indigo skies,
through the snowflake clouds. Like Major Tom in the David Bowie
song, Captain Joe floated in a most peculiar way. "I was in
suspended animation with no sense of sound or movement," recalls
the original Man Who Fell to Earth. "I felt like I'd walked off a
porch but landed nowhere."
Thirteen seconds after Kittinger bailed, a three-foot drogue
parachute snapped open to keep him from spinning into
unconsciousness, the common fate of a person who tumbles end over
end at 600 mph. However, it did little to brake his free fall,
which reached an estimated speed of 614 mph, just short of the
speed of sound. Finally, after 4 1/2 minutes and 85,300 feet, his
main chute deployed automatically, and he sailed safely to the
ground. His had been the highest skydive and the longest free
fall in history.
More than four decades later Kittinger's records still stand. But
now, in the 21st century's first space race, would-be aeronauts
from Australia (Rodd Millner), France (Michel Fournier) and the
United States (Cheryl Stearns) are vying with one another in a
me-first competition to eclipse his marks. Their
projects--respectively dubbed Space Dive, Le Grand Saut (The Big
Jump) and StratoQuest--each involve ballooning to 130,000 feet
(more than 24 miles up) and then hurtling headfirst to earth in
modified space shuttle togs. All three space jumpers expect it
will take maybe three hours to ascend, 10 minutes to descend and
a nanosecond for a goof-up to pulverize them into a million
"If I'm not in the shuttlecock position--70 degrees--who knows what
might happen?" says Stearns, a U.S. Airways pilot and seven-time
world skydiving champ. "Imagine an airplane on which the wings
start tearing off. Except that the wings would be my arms and
legs. On the other hand, I might just disintegrate."
Without a drogue, humans free-falling from such a rarefied
altitude could reach a velocity of about 1,100 mph (or Mach
1.5--nearly as fast as the Concorde) before the thickening
atmosphere slows them down. Whoever takes the first space plunge
looks to become the first human to break the sound barrier
unaided. "It's extreme science," says Millner. "No one can be
sure what effect going from transonic to supersonic will have on
the human body." He's pretty sure what will happen if his suit
springs a leak and depressurizes. "Above 63,000 feet without
pressure, your blood boils and you explode," he says, "or turn to
Kittinger won't give any of these daredevils their due. A Vietnam
vet who spent 11 months as an involuntary guest at the Hanoi
Hilton in the early '70s, Kittinger prides himself on his radar;
even from his Florida home he can make instant readings of the
true measure of things. And he thinks most of the attempts on his
balloon jumping record have one thing in common: hot air. "A week
after I set the record, people started phoning to tell me they
were gonna break it," snorts the gruff, bluff pensioner of 73. "I
average about one call a month. I even got one from a guy with no
"All these callers have had the same idea, all have the nerve,
but hardly any have the cash to pull the thing off," Kittinger
continues. "A lot of them publicly announce their intention to
jump, in the vain hope that someone will come forward with
money." The projects almost invariably gray into nonexistence. "I
try to stay as far away from these people as I can," he says. "If
they get killed, I'll get blamed. I don't want to be part of a
There have been only two recorded assaults on Kittinger's record.
"Both jumpers were killed," says Per Lindstrand, the Swedish
balloon maker Stearns hopes to hire to engineer StratoQuest. "At
least they were consistent." In 1962 Soviet colonel Pyotr Dolgov
hopped out of his Red Army balloon at 93,970 feet. His suit
instantly depressurized, and, as skydivers say, the world came up
and hit him.
Four years later New Jersey truck driver Nicholas Piantanida made
three attempts on Kittinger's caboodle. He aborted his first try,
over northern Minnesota, after a six-knot wind decapitated his
balloon at 22,700 feet, forcing him to activate his parachute and
float back to earth. On number 2 he got to 123,500 feet, which
remains the highest flight by a manned balloon. Unfortunately, he
couldn't disconnect from his onboard oxygen and drifted down
aboard his gondola.
On Piantanida's third go-round, something happened at around
49,000 feet. (In skydiving circles it's believed he didn't
breathe enough pure oxygen before takeoff, got the bends and, in
his delirium, ripped off his visor.) After hearing his screams
over the radio, Piantanida's crew triggered his gondola chute by
remote control and brought him back to earth, where he remained
in a coma for four months before dying. "Frankly, I wasn't
surprised when he got killed," says Kittinger. "The only things
you really worry about are the things you don't anticipate having
to worry about."
Kittinger worries that in their rush to make the Guinness Book of
World Records, his pursuers may be staging elaborate suicides.
"What's their purpose?" he asks. His was to test bailout and
recovery equipment for future spacemen. "At this point the
scientific contribution would be negligible. Most of these people
have no sense of the challenges, the physiological changes, how
hostile space is. All they care about is setting a record."
That's Fournier's raison d'etre. "It's really important for me to
be the first," says the 57-year-old retired army major. He's been
plotting his Great Leap Downward since 1986, when he says the
idea popped into his head, inexplicably and perversely, after
watching the Challenger disaster. "This is a race, isn't it?"
Fournier has the pole position, as he's the only one among the
three leapers to have equipment and financing in place. (The
others are still scrounging for funds and are at least a year
from launch.) The balloon that would tow him aloft is being built
by Don Cameron, the Brit behind the Breitling Orbiter III, which
in 1999 became the first balloon to circumnavigate the globe.
Made of clear plastic the thickness and texture of a dry-cleaning
bag, the canopy is 230 times the size of the average hot-air
balloon. As air pressure decreases with altitude, it will expand
to roughly 330 feet by 330 feet--the size not just of a football
field but a small football stadium. "It may look like the world's
biggest condom," Fournier says, "but it's really something very
On the way up, he will rest comfortably in a capsule that
resembles a port-a-potty. Unlike Kittinger, who wore a snug Buck
Rogers-esque partial-pressure suit ("It felt like being loved by
an octopus"), Fournier will be encased in three layers of
clothing: thermal underwear, a pressure suit and an outer layer
of carbon-fiber material that will shield him against intense
solar radiation. If all goes according to plan, once Fournier
leaps, the gondola will detach, its chute will blossom and the
balloon will deflate. "It should come down reasonably gently,"
says Cameron. "It will be one big, flapping mass of polyethylene."
Fournier has been conditioning his mind for Le Grand Saut by
practicing yoga, his hands by plunging them into icy water for 10
minutes a day, his eyes by firing at targets at a pistol range.
He promises that his $6 million project will be off the ground
and in the air as early as next month and no later than
September, when jet-stream conditions are favorable.
Denied air clearance by the French government, he plans to take
off from a desolate prairie in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. "I'm told
he's not gonna survive the jump," Stearns says. A moment later
she adds, "He might succeed. I hope he does. I certainly don't
want him to get killed."
The prospect of having to eat Fournier's cosmic dust doesn't
overly concern Millner's team, either. "No worries," says his
publicist, Greg Campbell. "If Fournier goes 130,000 feet, Rodd
will go 131,000." A blustery army commando turned Realtor turned
movie producer, Millner, 37, has pushed back his launch date a
year for lack of swag. To economize, he'll hitch a ride on an
Australian Defense Force weather balloon that will fly over Alice
Springs, in central Australia.
Stearns dismisses Millner as an "oddball, a hustler who's all
ego." The first woman to make the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army's
elite skydiving team, she hopes to lift off from McConnell Air
Force Base in Wichita, Kans. With a women's record 14,700 jumps
(352 in the same day, or once every four minutes) under her belt,
the 46-year-old sergeant insists she's the most qualified of the
space trio. She's also the most cash-strapped: The $50,000 she
has raised so far is all from her own savings. "Talk is cheap,"
grumbles Lindstrand, who wants $3 million up-front before he'll
take her on as a client. "I'm getting tired of people like Cheryl
who milk publicity for sponsorships yet achieve nothing."
The crusty Kittinger predicts that whoever leaps first will leap
last. "The person will either make it and live or miss it and
die," he says. "Make it, and nobody will care about a second
attempt. Miss it, and nobody will sponsor one."
If he pulls off his Great Leap Downward, Michel Fournier will
join an upwardly--and downwardly--mobile cast of aeronauts ranging
from a North Hollywood truck driver to Chuck Yaeger.
Height from which Michel Fournier will attempt the highest
skydive in history
Record for a high-altitude parachute jump, set by Joe Kittinger
Height at which internal bodily fluids start to vaporize if a
person is not protected by a pressurized suit
Height at which Chuck Yeager, in 1947, became the first pilot to
break the sound barrier
Point at which the stratosphere begins
Height of the planet's tallest peak, Mount Everest
Altitude reached in 1982 by North Hollywood truck driver Larry
Walters, who strapped 42 weather balloons to his aluminum lawn
chair (the FAA later fined him $1,500)
Highest altitude attained by the Wright brothers during their
historic flights on Dec. 17, 1903
suicide. "All they care about is setting a record," he says.