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."