Ever since the 1989 cancellation of S38-a French Ministry of Defense initiative designed to see whether a parachutist could safely descend from 125,000 feet (roughly the height at which the space shuttle Challenger exploded)-Fournier has been obsessed with the idea of a record-breaking, stratospheric jump. At the time he was a paratrooper in the French army, but he left the military in 1992 and sold everything: his house, his furniture, his car, his war medals and his arms collections. With the cash he bought the defunct S38 hardware and privately carried on what the Ministry of Defense had started.
By 1997 Fournier was training seven days a week, leading up to the announcement in September 2000 that he was ready to make his jump in the Provence countryside. But when the French government deemed the area too densely populated, Fournier chose Saskatchewan; it was more remote and had plenty of sunshine and a favorable jet stream during the spring and fall weather windows. The son of working-class parents, Fournier had only an elementary school education when he joined the military in 1963. He holds a view of the world and of his leap that seems uncomplicated by nuance. Why is he doing it? Pour la defie, Fournier says: for the challenge. For the science. But mostly for the record.
That record still belongs to Air Force pilot Joe Kittinger Jr., who, in 1960, completed the highest-ever human jump, from 102,800 feet. Kittinger accomplished this on his third ultrahigh-altitude leap over the New Mexican desert, the pinnacle of the U.S. Air Force's Project Excelsior program, which was designed to test whether pilots could survive high-altitude bailouts. But an earlier attempt was close to catastrophic. Kittinger was nearly killed when his drogue, a small stabilization parachute designed to stop his body from spinning and keep him pointed feet-down, opened prematurely and the canopy line twisted around his neck. He eventually blacked out from centripetal G forces caused by spinning but regained consciousness as soon as his reserve chute opened. Kittinger's subsequent jumps went more smoothly but were by no means without complications. On the dive that established the world record, Kittinger's glove ruptured, the lack of pressurization causing his hand to swell to nearly twice its size. But he alighted safely, having reached 614 mph (just under the speed of sound at his altitude).
At 58, Fournier is nearly 30 years older than Kittinger was when he made his record dive. But Fournier's age-and that of his American rival, Cheryl Stearns, who is 47, not to mention their top crew members, who are also riding the tail end of middle age-is actually an advantage. Aside from physical strength, a jump this daring requires consummate knowledge and experience. Many of the things that could go wrong, deadly wrong, might baffle a less seasoned skydiver. Besides, trying to keep up with Fournier during his 10-mile morning run (he's a marathoner and a pentathlete) quells any doubts that he's up to the task. He's compact, vaguely resembling Robin Williams. He's both stoic and boyishly animated, like a French circus mime. An individualist-he's divorced, no children, no brothers or sisters-Fournier is on his own trajectory.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.