When “Fearless” Felix Baumgartner tries to break the speed of sound by jumping from 23 miles above the earth’s surface Sunday, he’ll be in the company of other daredevils throughout history that have put their lives on the line for the sake of adventure. Whether he lives or dies, Baumgartner will be a name that future adrenaline junkies – not to mention parachutists – will always be compared to. The names he’s already joined in history are no less impressive.
Perhaps most notable is the man Baumgartner took his inspiration from. In 1960, Joseph Kittinger jumped from 102,800 (about 18,000 feet lower than Baumgartner’s attempt) and survived, holding the current record the Austrian will try to break Sunday. Mental Floss reported that when Kittinger was at 43,000 feet the pressure in his right glove failed, causing his hand to swell to an enormous size.
Kittinger made several jumps to test parachute designs, something he saw as part of his job as the head of an Air Force program called Project Excelsior. After becoming the fastest man to fall through space in the 1960 jump, Kittinger volunteered as pilot in the Vietnam War, where his plane was shot down and he spent almost a year in a prison camp.
Here’s a video of Kittinger’s legendary descent:
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Another Air Force pilot, John Stapp, was an early human version of the crash test dummies scientist use today. At one point Stapp, while riding in a simulator measuring rapid deceleration, traveled at a rate that surpassed 40 G forces, a number considered a certain killer. Stapp suffered no permanent injuries although his eyes were bleeding and both of his wrists broke, while dust gave his body rashes, according to Mental Floss.
Not every man to defy gravity was in the military, though, as Philippe Petit proved in 1974. The French daredevil and high wire artist famously walked a tight rope between the World Trade Center towers, which had only recently finished construction. As New Yorkers watched with mouths agape 1,368 feet below, Petit slowly walked into the open arms of police, who would eventually let him off when he agreed to replicate a similar stunt in Central Park.
Petit’s mission has been the subject of countless books and movies, the most famous of which is the Oscar-winning documentary “Man On Wire.” You can watch the trailer for that film below. Petit’s exploits and the planning that went into sneaking into the Trade Center were also the subject of Colum McCann’s book, “Let the Great World Spin,” which won the 2009 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.