One giant leap, part 1

Where does space begin? While most space authorities set the edge of space at 50-62 miles up, technically the "space-equivalent" environment begins much lower - between 10 and 19 miles up, in a region called the aeropause.

In the aeropause, an airplane ceases to operate and a spacecraft - which replaces traditional propellers and jets with reaction controls - is needed. If a pilot has to bail out from way up there, he or she needs a lot of protection for a hazardous freefall back to Earth.

Falling from space to Earth is not something to be taken lightly. When it comes to terminal velocity, a human body is no different than a metal pipe or a meteor falling from above the atmosphere to the Earth's surface. However, an object will never fall to Earth faster than 25,000 mph.

Let's look at a long fall to Earth from the lowest edge of outer space with the amazing story of Vietnam War-veteran, POW, and balloon-astronaut Capt. Joseph Kittinger, USAF. Capt. Kittinger was the first and only man to safely fall from space wearing a pressure suit, oxygen tank, and parachute pack.

On Aug. 16, 1960 - years before his ordeal as a Hanoi Hilton POW in Vietnam - Kittinger completed history's boldest mission to the doorway of space. On that day, Kittinger's giant balloon, dubbed Excelsior III, rose from the New Mexico desert to a peak altitude of nearly 20 miles. Kittinger, wearing a USAF space suit, was seated in the balloon's unpressurized, open gondola.

Near maximum altitude, Kittinger checked the thermometer - the temperature was minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 73.3 degrees Celsius). It had taken Excelsior III one hour and 31 minutes to rise nearly 20 miles. But on the way up, solo-pilot Kittinger developed a serious problem.

At 43,000 feet (13,106 meters), Kittinger noticed a small leak in his pressurized spacesuit glove. While this problem triggered a severe pain - caused by miniscule blood boiling - the daring captain didn't let the chance of losing a hand interfere with the mission.

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