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Floating in a gondola at that altitude “was a weird sensation,” he would recall nearly 40 years later during a BBC interview. It was a very profound feeling that I had.” But Kittinger had little time for reflection—there was still a mission to complete.Unbuckling his safety harness, he rose from his seat and snapped off the vehicle’s communications antenna to avoid snagging it when he leaped.In the pre-dawn hours of August 16, 1960, Captain Kittinger of the U. Air Force clambered into a contraption resembling a tin can that rested on the bed of a flatbed truck parked in the desert of New Mexico.

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Kittinger took a seat in the tin can—actually the open gondola of a huge helium balloon—and checked out the various gauges and switches before him. His flight was part of the Air Force’s Project Excelsior, a series of three missions to test a multi-stage parachute that would provide a controlled descent for fighter pilots forced to eject at high altitudes.

The balloon’s silvery, 200-foot-tall envelope rose and shimmered against the dark clouds cluttering the sky. The parachute’s design included a trio of chutes of varying sizes that would deploy automatically based on altimeter readings on the pack.

During the Excelsior I mission of November 16, 1959, his stabilizer parachute opened too soon, and the cords wrapped around his neck.

Rendered unconscious, Kittinger was saved when his main chute opened automatically and the small chute broke away as designed.

When he reached a safe altitude, his other parachutes deployed flawlessly and delivered him safely to the ground.

He claimed the record for highest freefall, an achievement that made the cover of LIFE magazine at the time, but his larger accomplishment was advancing our understanding of technology and the natural world.

In theory, this combination of parachutes would prevent a pilot ejecting in the stratosphere from spinning out of control at a deadly rate, sometimes as fast as 200 revolutions per minute.

Kittinger had already performed two test jumps with the new parachute from high altitude, one with near-catastrophic results.

Undeterred by this debacle, Kittinger climbed into the Excelsior gondola a second time to better results.

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