He’s perched at the brink of infinity. Joe Kitinger is 19 miles above the surface of the planet Earth, suspended in basket by a helium balloon. He has passed the atmosphere as man knows it, and can see for 400 miles in every direction. When he looks up all he sees is darkness and the sharp glare of the sun. When he looks down, he can see the thin blue line that separates Earth from space. He is witness to the curvature of Earth. He peers over the edge of the gondola, says a silent prayer, and jumps.
Captain Joseph William Kittinger is a participant in the military Project Excelsior, an extreme experiment to test the effects of jumping from such high altitudes. On this jump in 1959, Kitinger ascended to over 102,000 feet with the intent to free-fall down at the speed of sound.
This was not his first jump though. Nine months earlier, Kittinger jumped from 76,400 ft. Due to a equipment failure, Kittinger went into a out of control flat spin—rotating at over 120 rpm where his body was subject to forces 22 times that of Earth’s gravity. He quickly lost consciousness and was only saved by his parachutes automatic deployment at 10,000 feet.
On this jump, a specialized helium capsule will carry him to 19-and-a-half miles above the Earth. The danger of this jump far outpaces his previous. Nobody is certain he will make it back to the ground alive.
At the top of the ascent, the temperature is negative 100 centigrade, and the lack of atmospheric pressure is enough to make his blood instantly boil. It’s Project Excelsior‘s goal to prevent the type of fatal spin Kittinger went into during his previous jump. He’s situated within a pressure suit designed to keep his body in one position to ensure a safe fall.
In the early morning of August 16, 1960, Kittinger’s balloon began its ascent into the sky. The gondola rose at 1,200 feet per minute. It would take over an hour and a half to reach his target height. His pressure suit was designed to inflate as he rose in order to maintain a survivable pressure. But thirty minutes into his ascent the suit malfunctioned. His right glove failed to inflate properly—a circumstance that could easily kill him, or at the least, permanently damage his right hand. Knowing if he told flight control about the malfunction they would likely abort the mission, he continued upwards without mentioning the leak.
One hour and thirty one minutes into the flight, Kittinger had reached the maximum altitude. He had no control of his right hand which had swollen up to twice its normal size. The balloon was not in the optimal position over the landing zone, so he had time to contemplate his height as the gondola drifted for 11 minutes.
He took the time to marvel at the Earth, the vast blue marble displayed before him. But only a few layers of high-tech material separated him from the toxic environment and he had a mission to do. He went through his 46-step pre-launch checklist. Then he disconnected the balloons power supply which effectively disconnected him from the Earth below him. “When everything was done, I stood up, turned around to the door, took one final look out and said a silent prayer: ‘Lord, take care of me now.’ Then I just jumped over the side.”
And with one jump, he began to plummet to the ground at a ludicrous speed. His specific suit is designed to keep his back to the ground as he fell. The fall forced his face upward where he could see his balloon in the distance above him. The balloon appeared to be flying away from him like it was being snatched into the heavens. It took him a moment to realize that the balloon was stationary, and he was falling at a fantastic rate. His body didn’t comprehend he was falling. When you fall, you experience a sensation due to the acceleration until you hit terminal velocity. Once moving at a constant rate, you can only observe your motion be seeing landmarks move past you. Since there weren’t clouds nor air that high up, he had no concept of his motion.
Down he went at the speed of sound, about 619 miles per hour. He fell for four minutes and thirty-six seconds. The camera strapped to his body captured every second as the Earth appeared to grow larger by the moment. At 17,500 ft above sea level, he deployed his main parachute which began to slow his fall. It was another nine minutes before he was safe in the ground in the New Mexico desert.
Many recognize Russian Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space. And while his trip round the world in the Vostok spacecraft in April of 1961 is no feat to belittle, Joe Kittinger was the first man to reach heights typical of outer space.
As a trained military fighter and test pilot Kittenger went on to fly over 483 missions during his three tours. On his 483 mission, he was shot down in Vietnam while flying at twice the speed of sound. He was captured and spent eleven months as an prisoner of war at the ‘Hanoi Hilton.’
When he retired from the Air Force, he went back to balloons. In 1984, he flew the first solo balloon trip across the Atlantic when he went from Maine to Italy in 83 hours. A feat which set four world records.
Kittinger set the jump record in 1960, and in the 52 years since, nobody has broken it. Many have tried—Michel Fournier, a French adventurer has been attempting to for years—two have even died trying, but none have succeeded. There’s something about the now 83 year old Joseph Kittinger thats inherent to him as a person.