In Newtonian physics, free fall is any motion of a body where gravity is the only force acting upon it. In the context of general relativity, where gravitation is reduced to a space-time curvature, a body in free fall has no force acting on it.
An object in the technical sense of the term "free fall" may not necessarily be falling down in the usual sense of the term. An object moving upwards would not normally be considered to be falling, but if it is subject to the force of gravity only, it is said to be in free fall. The moon is thus in free fall.
In a uniform gravitational field, in the absence of any other forces, gravitation acts on each part of the body equally and this is weightlessness, a condition that also occurs when the gravitational field is zero (such as when far away from any gravitating body).
The term "free fall" is often used more loosely than in the strict sense defined above. Thus, falling through an atmosphere without a deployed parachute, or lifting device, is also often referred to as free fall. The aerodynamic drag forces in such situations prevent them from producing full weightlessness, and thus a skydiver's "free fall" after reaching terminal velocity produces the sensation of the body's weight being supported on a cushion of air.
In the Western world prior to the 16th century, it was generally assumed that the speed of a falling body would be proportional to its weight—that is, a 10 kg object was expected to fall ten times faster than an otherwise identical 1 kg object through the same medium. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) discussed falling objects in Physics (Book VII) which was perhaps the first book on mechanics (see Aristotelian physics).
The Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) subjected the Aristotelian theories to experimentation and careful observation. He then combined the results of these experiments with mathematical analysis in an unprecedented way.
According to a tale that may be apocryphal, in 1589–92 Galileo dropped two objects of unequal mass from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Given the speed at which such a fall would occur, it is doubtful that Galileo could have extracted much information from this experiment. Most of his observations of falling bodies were really of bodies rolling down ramps. This slowed things down enough to the point where he was able to measure the time intervals with water clocks and his own pulse (stopwatches having not yet been invented). This he repeated "a full hundred times" until he had achieved "an accuracy such that the deviation between two observations never exceeded one-tenth of a pulse beat." In 1589–92, Galileo wrote De Motu Antiquiora, an unpublished manuscript on the motion of falling bodies.