In 1959, now-Col. Joseph Kittinger jumped from a high-altitude stratospheric balloon to the Earth, more than 76,000 feet below. On the way down, the stabilizer parachute deployed early and wrapped around his neck. Rendered unconscious, Kittinger tumbled at 120 revolutions per minute until his main parachute automatically unfurled, saving his life.

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It’s just one example of the many dangerous situations Kittinger faced on the way to setting an altitude record in 1960, when he did yet another jump at 102,800 feet. His record stood for 52 years. As Kittinger told Discovery News, however, the Air Force ballooning programs he participated in were not done for the headline records. Instead, they were supremely focused on the science of helping aviators and astronauts survive at high altitude.

“To do all these types of interesting new programs takes three elements: confidence in your team, confidence in your equipment and confidence in yourself,” Kittinger said in an interview with Discovery News. “If any of those are missing, you’re in trouble. All those programs I was in, I had confidence I was going to come back alive. I had extensive training to make certain when I got there (at altitude), I was going to be in a safe condition.”

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Joseph Kittinger suited up for Project Excelsior in August 1957.Courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force

Kittinger — who is featured in the new PBS “Space Men” documentary running March 1 — was an admirer of John Stapp’s research from early in his Air Force career. Stapp used to test out prototype oxygen systems on himself in unpressurized aircraft and fly in parabolic aircraft (the predecessor to the “Vomit Comet”) to test weightlessness. Perhaps most famously, Stapp rode rocket sleds at extreme speeds to measure acceleration and deceleration on humans. More telling, Stapp was doing his research in the 1950s before Sputnik was the first satellite in space, and well before the 1960s when humans began to venture into the frontier.

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“Dr. Stapp was one of the few leaders in the medical profession that believed we were going to go into space,” Kittinger said. “No one ever seriously thought we would go into space and Dr. Stapp was a visionary. There were certain things we needed to know to design a system to protect the astronaut.”

Kittinger volunteered to go on Stapp’s next venture, called Manhigh. The purpose was to put a human into a near-space environment in a small, confined space — namely, the gondola underneath a high-altitude balloon. It also aimed to provide a means of escape by parachuting away from the gondola once the balloon reached altitude. According to Kittinger, the lessons learned were used by NASA when they designed the Mercury project.

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Manhigh ran three flights around the 100,000 foot altitude mark, shattering the previous record of about 42,000 feet. Kittinger participated in one flight, then did three balloon flights in the Excelsior program, most notably his death-defying step into history. “I jumped into the unknown,” Kittinger said, “but I had confidence in the equipment and the team and Dr. Stapp and the small drogue chute that we developed to provide a means of escape.” (The same drogue chute design is used in ejection seats today, he added.)

Kittinger’s career in balloons actually continued for years beyond that, but in more obscurity. Project Stargazer was his last Air Force ballooning project, where he and astronomer William White did hours of observations with a 12.5-inch Cassegrain telescope at 87,000 feet. They compared what stars look like in a zone of no atmosphere, with simultaneous ground observations of the same objects. Kittinger said the project was somewhat of a prelude to the Hubble Space Telescope and others like it. The project was cancelled due to Stapp leaving his position.

After three tours of duty in the Vietnam War (including 11 months as a prisoner of war), Kittinger remained with the Air Force until 1978. He then began balloon racing, notably retiring the Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race after winning three consecutive times in the 1980s. He also was the first person to fly the Atlantic Ocean solo in a balloon in 1984, between Caribou, Maine, and Cairo Montenotte, Italy. Despite the isolation, Kittinger said there was not much time to think about it.

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“I was extremely busy,” he recalled. “I had to fly the balloon. I had to communicate. I had to manage my systems. I had to watch the weather. In 3.5 days flying across the ocean, I only slept 2.5 hours. I was constantly flying the balloon, constantly staying busy, trying to go across the ocean.”

Kittinger helped Baumgartner with the 2012 jump at the age of 84, choosing only to help him and the rest of the Red Bull team because they had science objectives; other programs asking for Kittinger’s help did not, he said. The program aimed to develop a better pressure suit for working in space. Baumgartner’s fall was also recorded by physiological equipment 50 years more advanced than what examined Kittinger.

“Not only did Felix set a new record for altitude and speed, but we also made advancements in accordance with human factors,” Kittinger said.