In November of 1959 US Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger, fitted with a pressurized suit and a parachute, rode a high-altitude helium balloon to a height of 76,400 feet above the Earth’s surface. He then proceeded to jump. This had never been done before, and why would it have been? Kittinger entered a free-fall during which he lost consciousness after entering a 120rpm spin the g-forces of which were calculated to be 22 times the force of gravity at his extremities. Fortunately, his parachute was set to automatically open, which it did, saving his life. Three weeks later he rode another balloon high into the atmosphere and jumped from 76,700 feet. This was Project Excelsior. It was research.
That was nothing, though. On August 16, 1960 Captain Kittinger took a balloon up to 102,800 feet. He could see the curvature of the Earth. He could see entire continents. He was effectively the first human being in space. Again, he jumped. He fell for 4 minutes 36 seconds reaching a speed of 614mph. He thought he had broken the sound barrier. At 18,000 feet he opened his parachute and calmly returned to Earth. He set records for the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, and fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere. He also earned a whole series of medals and would eventually be promoted to Colonel. Recognition and rank aside, why would anybody do this?
Because they wanted to understand, to learn, and the only way to do this effectively was to do it yourself. As we entered an age after the conclusion of World War II defined by new and incredible breakthroughs in technology we needed to understand limits, capacities, and thresholds. In the days before super computers and sophisticated software modeling, this was how it was done. There was a need to understand the affects of high altitude bailout on the pilots and astronauts who would be flying at those altitudes. There was a need to test the effectiveness of the equipment we were designing. That meant someone needed to ride a balloon up that high and jump out. Captain Kittinger volunteered for the opportunity. He showed scientists that astronauts could survive the harshness of space with just a pressure suit and that man could eject from aircraft at extreme altitudes and survive.
More about Joe Kittinger and Project Excelsior here, here and here.
There is also this incredible footage of his jump in 1960 with some narrative from Joe Kittinger: