April 12 marks the 50th anniversary of the first man in space. The honor goes to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961, exited Earth's atmosphere in the Vostok spacecraft and completed an orbit of Earth before descending.
But shortly before Gagarin's mission, 32-year-old American Colonel Joe Kittinger completed a death-defying Air Force mission that, some argue, qualifies him as the first man in space.
On August 16, 1960, Kittinger donned a pressurized suit and rode a helium balloon craft to a height of 102,800 feet--almost at the edge of Earth's atmosphere--and jumped.
In the late 1950s, the U.S. Air Force set out to prove that a human could survive a fall from the outer limits of Earth's atmosphere. Kittinger's Excelsior missions were designed to test whether a pilot or astronaut could parachute to safety after an emergency bail-out from a damaged craft at high altitude.
Because the atmosphere was so thin, Kittinger said he felt no wind resistance and heard no sound during the first four minutes and 36 seconds of his fall toward Earth. "I had no visual reference on anything, so I thought I was really suspended in space," he said in an interview. Eventually, Kittinger began to hear the roar of the thickening atmosphere whipping past him. After deploying his primary parachute, Kittinger fell for over 9 minutes before he reached the ground. During his fall he experienced a minimum temperature of -94 degrees Fahrenheit and a maximum speed of 614 miles per hour, according to the National Museum of the Air Force.
Kittinger's jump set records for the highest balloon ascent, the longest parachute free fall and the fastest free fall speed. According to CBS News, two other men have died trying to recreate Kittinger's jump.
Kittinger's balloon was outfitted with cameras, as was his suit. You can watch clips from his mission, including his legendary jump, below.
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