[Listen to the audio at KMUW]
A year before cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, American Joe Kittenger took a lift below a two-hundred foot helium balloon. The ride took an hour and a half in a tiny open-air basket took him 102,000 feet above New Mexico. When he jumped from nineteen miles up, the freefall lasted four and half minutes.
Kittenger’s space dive began a long and costly race. After Russian Eugene Andreyev set an official freefall record, an American Nick Piantanida spent the mid-sixties trying to bring the record back to the United States.
During his three flights Nick found failures at every stage. On his first jump, the balloon tore at 16,000 feet and he wound up in a Minnesota city dump. Next, after he’d reached 123,000 feet, a technical failure sent him home in the gondola instead of a record breaking jumping. His final attempt proved deadly when he aborted at 56,000 feet after his suit depressurized.
It wasn’t until October, 2012, that Austrian Felix Baumgartner, along with his corporate sponsor Red Bull and the help of Joe Kittenger himself, meet the challenge. On eight million computer screens across the world, Baumgartner rose twenty-four miles up in an enclosed capsule. Then he jumped out. He fell for over four minutes. His body broke the speed of sound. He set a new bar that ensures the keep the space dive will continue.