High Anxiety

Cheryl Stearns and her quest to break the free fall record.

High Anxiety

Joe Kittinger leaps from 102,800 feet on August 16, 1960.

Forget about bungee jumping. Forget about skydiving from an airplane. How about leaping from a balloon gondola at an altitude of 130,000 feet? Those of you with a fear of heights might be aghast, but it’s true. Sometime in the next two years, Cheryl Stearns, a 46-year-old US Airways captain and 21-time U.S. women’s parachuting champion, will attempt to free fall from 24 miles above the earth. Is Stearns simply taking extreme sports to a new level? Hardly. With considerable technological hurdles to overcome, Stearns says the mission—dubbed Stratoquest—is dedicated to scientific research and education.

Wing and a Prayer
On one hand, Stearns isn’t entering totally uncharted territory. In 1960, U.S. Air Force project engineer Joe W. Kittinger, Jr. made an experimental jump from 102,800 feet, a mark that still stands as the high altitude record. According to Stearns, Kittinger’s jump was gutsy, if not downright crazy, noting that skydiving was still in its infancy at the time, and that scientists had less than complete knowledge of atmospheric conditions. “He is very lucky to have survived,” claims Stearns. “He went into the unknown. They hadn’t put a man on the moon yet and he was in an environment they didn’t know about,” she says.

In contrast, Stearns notes that she has extensive skydiving experience and a host of innovations to aid her training. Not only has Stearns executed more jumps than any woman in the world, she is the world record holder in women’s accuracy parachuting and the first female member of the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights parachute team. “I’ve got over 120 hours of free fall time in the air,” reminds Stearns. “Joe had some 30 jumps to his name [in 1960].” Also, scientific advancements now allow Stearns to simulate the conditions she might experience at high altitudes. “Forty-two years later we’re in a different situation,” claims Stearns. “With chambers and wind tunnels we have a really good idea what it will be like.”

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