The Man Who Fell to Earth (Joseph Kittinger )

On August 16, 1960, Joe Kittinger went for a balloon ride. Sitting inside an open gondola suspended from an enormous helium-filled envelope, the U.S. Air Force captain rose to a height more than 19 miles above the Earth’s surface. His mission that day—part of Project Excelsior—was to test a new parachute system for jet pilots forced to eject at high altitudes.

Project Excelsior, though, had another, some might say loftier, objective. In the next few months, NASA hoped to launch the first American into space and scientists still knew little about how such an extreme environment would affect human physiology. Project Excelsior provided NASA with the data it needed to ensure the safety of its astronauts.

“It was absolutely vital,” said Gordon Cooper, one of NASA’s Project Mercury astronauts, in a 1988 interview about Kittinger’s efforts. “We had to know if we could build the right kind of equipment to sustain life. We didn’t have any idea about the body’s stability at high altitudes or what kind of dynamics the human body would go through.”

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