By Joseph F. Schuler Jr.. Next September, when the FAA shuts down airspace over Wichita, Kan., Cheryl Stearns will step from a gondola carried two and half hours skyward by a 365-foot-high Mylar helium balloon. At 130,000 feet, Stearns won't think about the sponsors and military assistance that are making the $6.5 million jump possible. As she takes the largest step of her life -- in an aerodynamically designed, pressurized suit and helmet made of Kevlar -- she'll think, "I hope I didn't forget anything."

Less than 30 seconds later, she'll hit the speed of sound. She'll have just that long to check readouts built into her helmet, to make sure she's head-first in the "shuttlecock position," at a 70-degree angle, and make adjustments by cocking a foot or shoulder. When she hits Mach speed, air will buffet her, and then again as she's slowed by thicker air molecules of lower altitudes.

Stearns, 47, of Raeford, N.C., knows what to expect because she's performed feats like this before. Indeed, for Stearns, like for anyone who continually practices and strives toward a goal, her passion is a paradox: She improves only by parachuting over and over. Yet repetition can breed carelessness.

For Stearn, that carelessness is life threatening, but fear keeps her focused. "Fear gives you respect for danger," she says. "But you have to know what the danger is. You have to have the knowledge to take the step that helps overcome the fear." Having a plan and a backup is key. "Before I jump, I go through emergency procedures," Stearn says. "I don't assume I know them. You think, 'Oh it will never happen.' Then you have a problem."