Before NASA, John Glenn, and “The Right Stuff” astronauts of Project Mercury, there were Air Force test pilots. While some of these mad men, like Chuck Yeager, went after flight records, others tested the limits that thin atmosphere, high-altitude, and extreme G-forces had on the human body. None pushed this pursuit further than Joe Kittinger. The first groundbreaking mission came in 1957 when Kittinger, then 29, was sent up to 96,000 feet in a small, enclosed capsule hanging from a specially designed hot air balloon where he sat for seven hours in order to determine whether man could withstand the physical and psychological pressures of an extended period of time outside our atmosphere. In 1958 he became the director of Project Excelsior, which tested the safety of using parachutes from space capsules. In the first run, Kittinger jumped from a balloon at 76,000 feet, passing out during the fall and only surviving after his backup chute automatically deployed at 10,000 feet. Despite the close call, Kittinger did two more jumps, including one on Excelsior III in 1960 from the freezing (that’s minus 94 degrees cold) heights of 102,800 feet. With this one jump, Kittinger set the records for longest freefall, highest open-gondola balloon ascent, and longest parachute descent—one that was held for nearly five decades, until finally broken by Felix Baumgartner in 2012 with the Red Bull Stratos team. Not surprisingly, Joe Kittinger was the flight operations coordinator for Baumgartner’s jump.
• In 1957, Kittinger flew across the state of Minnesota by a balloon, breaking the altitude endurance record, flying at 96,000 feet for two hours. The full flight took 6 hours and 34 minutes.
• In August 1960, in a helium balloon, Kittinger flew to 102,800 feet and dropped to Earth, free-falling for 4 minutes and 36 seconds. He held this record until 2012.
• In 1984, Kittinger became the first man to solo across the Atlantic in a hot air balloon.
The Last Word
Pushing experimental aircraft to its limits is one thing. Signing up to test the limits of the human body in these extreme environments is next-level bravery. Joe Kittinger is as an essential figure to our space program as any astronaut in history.
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