I recently watched the BBC miniseries, The Planets. Although it was made in 1999, I still recommend it without reservation.
Episode six concentrates on planetary atmospheres, using Joe Kittinger’s Project Excelsior experience to frame the extremes of the Earth’s atmosphere. He holds the record for the highest balloon flight, at 31,333 metres (102,800 feet). The gondola had a camera so as the narrator explained what was happening, I could watch it unfold before me. Kittinger radioed to the ground, explaining that he had reached the maximum altitude and the temperature reading was −70°C (−94°F). His next action came as an utter surprise to me. Kittinger stepped out of the gondola.
He fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, setting a world record for the longest parachute free-fall that still stands today. He had deployed a stabilizer parachute after jumping and although it didn’t do much to slow his decent, it stabilized his flight attitude. During this decent, he reached a velocity of 1,150 km/h (714 mph), faster than the speed of sound at that altitude. He deployed his main parachute at 5,300 metres (17,500 feet) and landed safely in the New Mexico desert.
His ascent in the balloon took 91 minutes and his decent lasted just 13 minutes and 45 seconds. It took him less than two hours to get from the surface of the Earth to the edge of space and back without using any sort of powered flight.
He did this 51 years ago today, on August 16, 1960.