Last weekend, Felix Baumgartner jumped from a capsule suspended from a weather balloon in the stratosphere. His altitude was around 128,000 feet. He set a whole bunch of records in the process, broke the sound barrier, and made an impressive video. While his jump was record-breaking and entertaining to watch, Red Bull's publicity stunt would never have been possible without the pioneering jumps of Joseph Kittinger.
In the late 50s, Air Force test pilots were pushing their aircraft to new heights--literally. They flew experimental aircraft at three times the speed of sound into air so thin traditional airplane control surfaces were ineffective. Advanced new rocket planes, like the X-15, required the development of new technology to allow pilots to bail out at altitudes where the air is very thin. Earlier tests using dummies suggested that high-altitude bailouts would be bad.
a body tended to fall in a prone position but rolled around its vertical axis up to 465 times a minute -- from the pilot’s point of view it would be like rolling really fast down a hill but without the hill.
The kinds of g-forced the pilot would experience would almost certainly kill him, so the US Air Force needed to find a way of stabilizing a pilot's fall from a high altitude bailout.
Enter Project Excelsior and Joseph Kittinger. Kittinger jumped to test a new parachute designed to work in the upper atmosphere. The parachute worked, and Kittinger eventually completed three jumps, proving that pilots could parachute safely away from planes at altitudes where the atmosphere was virtually non-existant. (via Amy Shira Teitel)