On this day in 1960, Joseph Kittinger leapt from a helium balloon at an altitude of 31,330 metres (102,800 feet). His jump set a handful of world records including highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, fastest sky dive through the atmosphere, and longest free fall.
Joseph Kittinger was born in Tampa, Florida, on 27 July 1928. As a teenager he raced speedboats for fun, and at the age of 20 he joined the US Air Force and trained as a pilot, ending up in the 86th Fighter Bomber Wing at Ramstein Air Force Base in post-World War II Germany. Then in 1954 he was transferred to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where he started working with Colonel John Stapp at the experimental Air Force Missile Development Centre. In 1957, as part of Project Manhigh, he set a balloon altitude record by flying a balloon to a height of 96,760 feet (29,500 metres).
After Holloman and Manhigh came Project Excelsior at the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Here, Kittinger and Stapp started researching high altitude bailouts by attempting daredevil sky dives out of helium balloons at record heights. The project was initiated to design and test a stabilization parachute system that would allow high-altitude flight crews to descend safely after ejection from a plane, without the potentially fatal flat spin that occurs. The project would also test the human body’s reaction to high altitude and space conditions.
The first ascent in Excelsior I, on 16 November 1959, almost killed Kittinger. From a height of 23,300 metres (76,400 feet), an equipment malfunction caused him to lose consciousness as he fell into a flat spin of around 120 revolutions a minute, subjecting him to G-forces of around 22 times gravity—another record in itself. Luckily, his life was saved by an automatic parachute opener. Surprisingly, Kittinger wasn’t deterred from another attempt. Only a few weeks later, on 11 December 1959, he jumped from a height of 22,770 metres (74,700 feet) from Excelsior II without any hiccups.
On 16 August 1960, Excelsior III would climb even further. During the record ascent, Kittinger faced temperatures as low as -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), and suffered yet another equipment failure, as a malfunction in the pressurisation of his right glove made his hand swell up to twice its usual size. To avoid aborting the mission, he decided not to inform the ground crew and continued on without the use of the hand. After an hour and a half, Excelsior III passed the familiar blue sky into the inky blackness of the stratosphere. Below him was the curvature of Earth blanketed by clouds, and above and around him stretched infinite, black space. At 31 kilometres (19.5 miles) above Earth’s soil with 99.2 percent of the atmosphere beneath him, Kittinger jumped.
But Kittinger had no sensation of falling, and felt like he was spinning in space. When he turned over, facing away from Earth, he saw the balloon “racing into the heavens… at a fantastic rate.” Then he realised he was the one moving so rapidly. Since there is no air resistance in the stratosphere, there is no wind and no feeling of speed. Despite reaching speeds up to 988 kilometres (614 miles) an hour, without air, the descent was silent and oddly still. “I had no ripple of the fabric on my precious suit… it was a very weird sensation.”
After thirteen seconds, the 1.8-metre stabilizing chute opened, preventing the fatal flat spin that would otherwise kill him. After four minutes of falling through black space, he began to re-enter the familiar blue haze. His free fall lasted for four minutes and thirty-six seconds—a record that still stands—before his 8.5-metre main parachute deployed at 5,334 metres (17,500 feet). After a 13 minute 45 second descent, Kittinger landed safely back on Earth.
Project Excelsior proved it was possible for flight crews to parachute to safety after high-altitude bailouts, and that the human body—as well as the equipment—could withstand the stress of space emergency conditions.
Kittinger was later exposed to very different dangers in the Vietnam War, where he completed three tours of duty, during which he was captured and kept as a prisoner of war for 11 months. He finally retired from the Air Force in 1978, but still he continued to attempt amazing feats of extreme ballooning; in 1983 he set a world distance record of 3,221 kilometres (2,000 miles) travelled, and in 1984 he completed the first solo Atlantic crossing in the appropriately named “Balloon of Peace.” Kittinger held the record for longest free fall jump until 1962, and highest manned balloon ascent and skydive and fastest speed by a human outside an aircraft until October 2012.
Credit: U.S. Air Force Museum
Caption: Joe Kittinger jumps out of a helium balloon from an altitude of 102,800 feet.