Joe Kittinger was the man who fell to earth.
In 1960, Kittinger, USAF test pilot, ascended to an altitude of 30Km, in a high-altitude helium balloon, before stepping into the void. Kittinger fell at speeds off 990Km/h, freefalling for 4 and a half minutes before deploying a chute at a height of 5.5Km, and floating to the ground. While it took 1 and a half hours to ascend, the descent totalled just 13 minutes and 45 seconds.
This was the last of 3 jumps Kittinger undertook, having previously jumped from altitudes of approximately 23 Km.
The video footage, taken from a fixed camera attached to the balloon, and one mounted on Kittinger's helmet, is stunning. As Kittinger spins violently round (in one of the earlier jumps he lost consciousness after spinning at 120rpm), the earth flashes round against the blackness of space, sudden blinding bursts of sunlight scatter hexagon lens flares. Viewed from the balloon, the figure of Kittinger against the white expanse of clouds seems helpless, one man against nature.
In 2008, two attempts were scheduled by two teams, one British, one French, to try and exceed the altitude record that Kittinger achieved. Neither attempt took place, due to technical reasons. The British parachutist Steve Truglia, is a 43-year old ex-SAS soldier and stuntman, while Michel Fournier is a 65-year old French retired French army officer.
Fournier was featured in an article in Wired back in 2002, while his website shows he has been planning this mission for over 17 years. In 2003 the attempt was aborted when the balloon tore on launching. No explanation is given why the 2008 attempt did not take place, though it looks like he might have run out of funds.
Truglia's site has a great history of Kittinger and Project Excelsior. There's little indication why his 2008 jump was cancelled, though funding could well be an issue.
We should also note the awesome video by Boards of Canada for Dayvan Cowboy, where footage of Kittinger's insane escapade is segued into beautiful sequences of surfer Laird Hamilton.