FORTY YEARS ago, U.S. Air Force test pilot Joe Kittinger flew a balloon to the edge of space and bailed out. His 102,800-foot parachute jump—an experiment designed to research high-altitude ejections—is one of the world's longest-held aeronautical records.
Human projectiles the world over seemed just fine with that until Cheryl Stearns came along. This December, the 45-year-old pilot plans to make the first of a series of practice jumps toward her 2001 effort to parachute, in a space suit, from a helium balloon, at the astronomical height of 130,000 feet. If all goes according to plan, she'll break the sound barrier on the way down—becoming the first human to do so without help from a plane or rocket.
"You need to keep an aerodynamic streamline,"explains Stearns. "You don't want an arm sticking out when you go from transonic to supersonic. That would start me rotating." Such rotation, if not immediately checked, could be catastrophic; Kittinger nearly died when he became entangled in his chute and went into a spin on the first of his three test jumps in 1959 and 1960.
To prepare for Project StratoQuest—the highfalutin name for her drop through nearly 25 miles of restricted airspace over either New Mexico or western Texas next October—Stearns plans to make about two dozen practice jumps ranging in altitude from 12,000 to 60,000 feet. The scene at the landing site next year will have the feel of a festive Space Shuttle launch, complete with a play-by-play direct from the plummeting Stearns. To the now retired Kittinger, she faces a world of danger: "You make a mistake, and you're dead."
Stearns understands this, and though she's no wing-nut weekend warrior, she clearly thinks she's got something to prove. With more than 13,000 skydives under her belt, she holds the world record for the most jumps in a 24-hour period (352). She was also the first woman accepted onto the U.S. Army's Golden Knights parachute team and holds down a day job as a 737 captain for US Airways. "There's nothing I hate more than people telling me I can't do something," she says. "Because then I've got to do it."