In 1960, Colonel Joseph Kittinger jumped out of a helium balloon at 102,800 feet in the name of science, setting the world record for the highest and fastest parachute jump. Later this year, an Austrian daredevil named Felix Baumgartner hopes to beat that record by more than 3 miles, also by stepping out of a balloon. From Space.com:
"Right now, the space shuttle escape system is certified to 100,000 feet," said the mission's medical director Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon. "Why is that? Because Joe Kittinger went there. You've got a lot of companies that are vying for the role of being the commercial space transport provider for tourism, for upper atmospheric science, and so on. These systems, particularly during the test and development phase, need a potential escape system, which we may be able to help them provide with the knowledge we gain."
A team of aeronautics experts recently led Baumgartner through a week of testing meant to illuminate any possible weaknesses in his equipment and to familiarize him with the skills needed to navigate the conditions expected to assail him as soon as he opens his vessel door.
Only a few feet above ground in a capsule dangling from a crane on Sage Cheshire Aerospace test grounds in California, Baumgartner practiced exiting and stepping off his hot-air balloon. Even a slight stumble during this step could cause dangerous alterations in his in-flight position only moments later, as well as reduce his chances of actually breaking the sound barrier.