Few people know it, but the first man in space wasn't an astronaut. It was test pilot Joe Kittinger.
In 1960, the little-known pioneer was part of an U.S. Air Force project called Excelsior, which was designed to test the effects of space on human beings — and, more important, to determine whether an astronaut could survive an aborted mission, even at 20 miles above the earth.
Kittinger had the right stuff. He traveled all the way into space via balloon — then jumped out.
"I turned over and I looked, and I could see the balloon flying into space. And then I realized the balloon was standing still and that was me that was flying straight down. Going very fast!" Kittinger told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith.
What was his last thought before he leaped?
"Well," Kittinger said, "I just said a prayer. I said: 'Lord, take care of me now.' It was the most fervent prayer I ever said in my life."
Kittinger's historic leaps were big news back in 1960. Life magazine did a huge spread. But Kittinger's death-defying acts soon were eclipsed by rocket-propelled space flight. He quickly became a footnote in the space race.
"Remember," Kittinger pointed out. "We didn't have the PR that NASA had."
A trained fighter and test pilot, Kittinger later volunteered for combat missions in Vietnam. He flew a mind-boggling 483 combat missions during three tours.