Watch Historic Footage of Joseph Kittinger’s 102,800 Jump from Space (1960)

When I first heard that 43-year old Aus­tri­an dare­dev­il and for­mer mil­i­tary para­chutist Felix Baum­gart­ner would be jump­ing 128,000 feet from space, my imme­di­ate reac­tion was, “What? Why?!” Because why would any­one do that? And I assumed it was all some macho stunt to pro­mote Red Bull, his cor­po­rate spon­sor, which isn’t entire­ly unfound­ed. But I also had no sense of the his­toric con­text, the sci­en­tif­ic impli­ca­tions, and until I read the details, the tru­ly death-defy­ing mag­ni­tude of it all. As I watched the jump and then learned more, my won­der and admi­ra­tion grew, par­tic­u­lar­ly in read­ing Baumgartner’s own accounts of his sev­en years of prepa­ra­tion for the feat.

Baum­gart­ner best­ed Chuck Yea­ger on the same day in his­to­ry that Yea­ger broke the sound bar­ri­er (he says Yeager’s going to be “pissed”). He also broke the record set by Joseph Kit­tinger, an Air Force pilot who leapt from 102,800 feet (19.5 miles) above earth in 1960. You can watch a short doc­u­men­tary of Kittinger’s famous jump above. The tech­nol­o­gy of 1960 didn’t allow for the crys­tal-clear images Baum­gart­ner cap­tured with his two suit cam­eras, but it’s still an impres­sive lit­tle film, made more so by Kittinger’s voice over describ­ing the sen­sa­tions he expe­ri­enced dur­ing free fall. Below is a clas­sic 1960 news­reel film of the jump, with a dra­mat­ic announc­er and tri­umphal, mar­tial music.

Kit­tinger and Baum­gart­ner first met in 2008, and the elder test pilot sup­port­ed and helped plan the Red Bull Stratos project that would break his record. He also served as Baum­gart­ner’s mis­sion con­trol, guid­ing him from his tiny space cap­sule to the ground. The jump was appar­ent­ly sup­posed to take place two years ear­li­er, on the 50th anniver­sary of Kittinger’s, but was delayed. Below, you can watch Kit­tinger dis­cuss the project and his own career in a 2010 inter­view with Red Bull.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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