INSCRIBED ON THE COCKPIT door of the balloon was a legend that read: “The world’s biggest step.” And indeed it was! For the balloon carrying Joseph Kittinger, a United States Air Force captain, was 16 miles up in the sky, sailing along at a height of 102,000 feet over New Mexico, when on August 16, 1960, Kittinger took that step, and made history.
Falling freely through the air, Kittinger picked up speed each second. Mile after mile he fell, with his parachute firmly packed on his back. But though he encountered a pitiless wind as he reached a falling speed of over 600 miles an hour, the 32-year-old Kittinger maintained his composure. It wasn’t easy to brook a temperature as low, at times, as 94 degrees below zero.
Yet, before releasing his chute, the dauntless captain dropped 84,700 feet-more than 16 miles! He had fallen through space for four minutes and 38 seconds, a world’s record for a free fall.
After Kittinger opened his parachute, it took 13 minutes for him to float down the last three miles to terra firma.