In the late 1950s, the space race was on and the United States was all in. Beaten into orbit by the Soviet Union and their Sputnik satellite, America was desperately trying to catch up. Everyone knew the Soviet’s next big play was to put a man in space, and the U.S. was keen to compete but we really didn’t know what it would take to keep a human alive at very high altitudes and thin atmospheres, much less in the vacuum of space.
Along with NASA, the United States Air Force had a vested interest in human survivability above the Armstrong Limit, which is defined as the altitude and air pressure at which the boiling point of water decreases to normal human body temperature (37°C or 98.6°F). An altitude of somewhere between 59,000 and 63,000 feet is where air pressure drops to 6.3 kPa (kilo Pascal ot 6,300 Pascals). If that sounds like a bad thing for a human being, it is.
While NASA was planning and doing research for manned space flight missions, the Air Force was planning aircraft that would fly and operate above the Armstrong Limit, possibly even into space. Both organizations needed flight suits that would provide a personal pressurized atmosphere for one. The Air Force also had a need for a parachute system that would work at high altitudes and at high speeds in case it became necessary for flight crew to eject from a disabled aircraft. With those two development and test goals established (a pressurized flight suit and a high-altitude parachute system) Project Excelsior was born.
Every experiment needs a test subject. Having experience in flight test and medical research, Air Force Captain Joseph William Kittinger II (born July 27, 1928) was given the assignment of test director of Project Excelsior. It is not clear whether that lofty title was really a euphemism for guinea pig or whether he, as test director of the project, assigned himself the role. In any case, Kittinger was the test subject in three high-altitude jumps. Each jump was made from a specially-built gondola suspended beneath a specially-built balloon designed for the project. The ‘open gondola’ was not pressurized, so Kittinger was fully dependent on his pressurized flight suit to keep him alive as the balloon carried him up to and above the Armstrong Limit. The parachute system to be tested was a two-stage affair with a small drogue chute that opened first to stabilize the wearer and slow the descent, followed by the large main chute much later at a lower altitude. Both chutes opened automatically with no need for the user to pull a ripcord.
On November 16, 1959, the Excelsior I lifted Kittinger to an altitude of 76,400 feet (23,300 m). Shortly after stepping off the gondola into free fall, the first stage drogue chute deployed too soon before Kittinger was ready. Parachute cord caught his neck as it whipped by him. The equipment malfunction caused Kittinger to begin spinning uncontrollably at a rate of 120 revolutions per minute. That’s two full rotations every second! He quickly lost consiousness. The situation would have been fatal if not for the parachute system having been designed to work automatically.
Excelsior II lifted off three weeks later on December 11, 1959. The altimeter onboard the gondola was in error, and as a result Kittinger jumped from a lower altitude than his first flight, officially 74,700 feet (22,769 m).
On August 16, 1960, Excelsior III lifted Kittinger to a planned jump altitude of 102,800 feet (31,300 m). His right glove failed during the ascent, losing pressure. As a result, his right hand swelled up to double normal size and became unusable. Rather than alert ground controllers of the problem glove, and fully expecting the jump would be aborted, Kittinger did the best he could to complete every task with his left hand.
Captain Kittinger set a number of records during his three landmark jumps, including highest altitude parachute jump, highest speed free fall, and longest-duration free fall jump. He still holds the record for longest-duration free fall, but the records for highest altitude and highest speed were broken by Austrian Felix Baumgartner on October 14, 2012. Notably, Kittinger served as Baumgartner’s mentor and capcom (capsule communicator) for that jump. The highest altitude record was again broken in 2014 by Alan Eustace who simultaneously broke the record for longest-distance free fall jump (not to be confused with longest-duration free fall which Kittinger still holds).
Joe Kittinger went on to fly fighters over Vietnam, was shot down, and held as a POW for 11 months. In 1978, Joe retired from the Air Force as a full bird Colonel. He’s 92 years old.
“Space Jump-Col. (Ret.) Joe Kittinger” (3:06):
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