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First Spaceman Joe Kittinger Leaves a Great Legacy

Retired US Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger’s contributions to aerospace and humanity will always remain legendary. The dauntless test pilot, space pioneer, brave balloonist, war veteran, high skydiver, parachutist, and a true American hero passed away on 9th December 2022 after a battle with lung cancer. He was 94.

Kittinger was a great believer in strict discipline and “no short-cuts.” He considered himself fortunate to have received the guidance in his early years that allowed him to pursue his dreams. “Those formative years are everything: parents, companions, education, experiences. That’s when you acquire the discipline. If you don’t have it by the time you’re twenty, it’s probably already too late,” wrote Kittinger in his book, “Come Up and Get Me.” 

An automatic camera captures Capt. (later Col.) Joseph Kittinger just as he jumps into the space vacuum from the Excelsior III gondola on August 16, 1960, at an altitude of 102,800 feet (31,300 m).

On 16th August 1960, Captain Kittinger, as he was then , became the first human to dive from near space from 102,800 feet above the Earth and went on to set an altitude record that lasted for 52 years. As the atmosphere thins out with increasing altitude, for human beings, the “death zone” begins at 26,000 feet because the insufficient oxygen cannot sustain life for more than four minutes, so at 102,800 feet Kittinger was surrounded by only 1% of the atmosphere, which means he was in a space vacuum. Kittinger had only his pressure suit and helmet for protection from the deadly space environment. This experiment, third in a series, was part of Project Excelsior designed to test a multistage parachute system, from 100,000 feet above, that would provide a means of escape for pilots forced to eject at high altitudes.

Joseph William Kittinger II was born on July 27, 1928, and grew up in Tampa, Florida. He joined the US Air Force in 1949. Five years later, Kittinger was already making waves at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, New Mexico, as a test pilot and jumper. This led him to two high-altitude projects.  The Manhigh project aimed at raising a human into a near space environment for many hours and monitoring what happens to the body in the near vacuum of the upper stratosphere. It was so dangerous, that the Air Force got approval and funding only after it described it as an experimental design and test of a proposed manned space vehicle, (a balloon with a gondola!) which was equally dangerous but may have relieved some emotional burden for the grantors.

Joe Kittinger in the Manhigh gondola. On 2nd June 1957, Kittinger soared to 96,000 feet and is considered the first astronaut who reached near space in the oldest aerial vehicle-the balloon. (Photo courtesy of US Air Force)

Kittinger was designated the first test pilot, and he went through a grueling battery of physical exams for his balloon flight into the stratosphere. He also needed to get a parachute rating, a balloon pilot’s license, and a twenty-four-hour claustrophobia test among other prerequisites. After conducting a series of test flights onboard with monkeys, guinea pigs, and mice, Kittinger became the first human to soar in a helium balloon to 96,000 feet, (a near space realm). He was also the first one to see the curvature of Earth. Project Manhigh had two other flights with other test pilots and fulfilled many objectives that contributed to the successes of NASA’s Project Mercury.

Later for Project Excelsior, all three flights to the stratosphere involved jumping from extreme altitudes. Kittinger would ascend in a box-like gondola suspended beneath a 200-foot-tall helium balloon. His first dive from 76,000 feet from Excelsior I nearly killed him. On that flight, just before the jump, Kittinger had to struggle his way out of the frozen seat and, in the process, he had accidentally triggered the timer of his stabilization chute, which deployed prematurely during the fall and wrapped around his neck. Research on dummies had shown that, without a stabilization chute, a falling body from an extreme altitude has a dreadful tendency to go into a flat spin up to 200 revolutions per minute (rpm). Now, Kittinger was falling and spinning at 120 rpm. Rendered unconscious, few minutes later, he found himself 3,000 feet above the Earth, coasting down under his reserve parachute.

Undaunted, by the catastrophic experience, he proceeded with Excelsior II, and everything went well with his jump from 75,000 feet.

On Excelsior III, at 40,000 feet, Kittinger’s pressure suit inflated, but his right pressure glove did not inflate. With the exposure to vacuum, his right hand began to swell, yet despite the severe pain, the 32-year-old captain did not report the problem to his team, fearing that they would abort the flight. Having taken a calculated risk, he decided to stay calm and focused.At that peak altitude of 102,800 feet, where only a handful of rocket plane pilots had arced momentarily, Kittinger had eleven long minutes before initiating the jump procedure. He took that opportunity to absorb the panorama of space in detail and described it to his ground crew who was eager to hear about it.

Relieved when his ground crew asked him to go through the checklist for the jump, he unplugged all the monitoring systems connected to him and stood up outside the confines of the gondola becoming the first man to be in space outside of a spacecraft. Just before taking the leap, he informed his doctor that his right hand was twice its normal size and of no use. He wanted them to have the information for documentation. Then he said a silent prayer and jumped in the vacuum. Within seconds he had accelerated to 614 miles per hour. But he had no sense of speed, because there is no wind or sound, and nothing flashes by in the stratosphere.

As he fell to the troposphere below, his speed had decreased to 250 miles per hour due to air resistance, and his pressure suit began to relax. During the long leap, he kept commenting to record his observations. This was his 33rd parachute

jump and third one from extreme altitude. The main canopy opened at 17,000 feet and when the ground came rushing up, he knew he would be home.

At the time of his touchdown, Kittinger had set four records: Record altitude for manned balloon flight, record altitude for an open gondola, the highest parachute jump (102,800 feet) and the longest freefall (4 minutes 36 seconds). He was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Eisenhower in 1960 for outstanding accomplishments in aeronautics. His record stood for 52 years and was broken, in October 2012, by expert parachutist Felix Baumgartner, whom Kittinger had assisted throughout the project. Baumgartner soared in a balloon to 128,100 feet above the Earth and jumped out. Two years later, Google executive Alan Eustace soared even higher and jumped from 135,890 feet.

But Kittinger’s space dive remains a phenomenal achievement even today as it was in 1960. At a time when it was not known what would happen to a human body in the vacuum of a near-space environment, Kittinger took catastrophic risks to test the MC-3 partial-pressure suit and new technologies in the stratosphere and improve safety in aviation. Kittinger’s jumps proved that, with proper protection, human beings can survive the hostile space environment, and for anyone ejecting at an extreme altitude, a stabilization chute can prevent the deadly flat spin while providing a quick descent to a safer atmospheric level.

Kittinger’s contributions, however, are not limited to his pioneering efforts in aerospace. As a fighter pilot, he went on to serve 483 combat missions during the Vietnam War and endured eleven months as a prisoner of war, in a North Vietnamese prison.  A passionate flyer, he logged more than 16,800 hours in 93 different aircraft and flew on four continents, across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He made 102 parachute jumps and ejected twice from disabled jets.  His many awards and recognitions as an Air Force hero and a civilian include induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame, on July 19, 1997, in Dayton, Ohio.

Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., commander of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, was credited with shooting down one MiG21 on March 1st, 1972 while flying this F-4D currently on display at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado. Courtesy of joekittinger.com

After Colonel Kittinger retired from the Air Force in 1978, he pursued his passion for aeronautics and became the first balloonist to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1984. For that long, lonely flight, he launched from Caribou, Maine, USA on 14 September 1984 in a 101,000 cubic foot, helium-filled balloon Rosie O’Grady. After 86 hours and flying 3,543 miles, he landed at Montenotte, near Savona, Italy, on 18 Sep 1984. For this outstanding flight, the Italian government honored him by dedicating a monument that marks his landing site in Cairo Montenotte, Italy.

Col. Kittinger poses with wife Sherri at the monument in Cairo Montenotte, Italy, where he landed the Rosie O’Grady’s helium balloon on September 18th, 1984. Courtesy of joekittinger.com

He also won the coveted Gordon Bennett trophy in long-distance ballooning in 1982, 84, 85, and 88, and was inducted into the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame at the National Balloon Museum in Indianola, Iowa, in 2010.

In his autobiography, Come Up and Get Me (published in 2010), Kittinger narrates awe-inspiring and gripping stories about his flying adventures, often sprinkled with humor and amusing anecdotes, and salutes the brave efforts of people who contributed to the remarkable achievements.

Colonel Kittinger admired Neil Armstrong, Charles Lindbergh, Scott Crossfield, and John Paul Stapp because each one of them wanted to make a glorious contribution. Like them, Kittinger also took up challenges that contributed toward gaining profound knowledge and progress in aerospace. His major involvement in projects Manhigh and Excelsior, through ballooning as a scientific platform, would usher in the space age and contribute significantly to NASA’s Project Mercury—the first human spaceflight program of the United States. Even in the most dangerous situations Kittinger had immense faith in his team members. He never missed an opportunity to appreciate good work and show his gratitude.

After he retired from the Air Force, Colonel Kittinger settled in Orlando. A park was dedicated to him in 1992 at Orlando Executive Airport. Many newspaper accounts suggest that the colonel was cheerful even as he battled lung cancer and was thankful for having lived a great life. 

I was privileged to talk with him. On November 11, 2018, on this Web site I published an article: “Joe Kittinger: First Man to Jump from Space.” I sent him an email, informing him about the published article, and mentioned that I will quickly correct any mistakes, if he could bring them to my attention. He called me and congratulated me in a highly enthusiastic and appreciative tone. A part of the conversation went along these lines:

“What a great article you wrote for LTA-Flight Magazine, thank you,” he exclaimed.

I was ecstatic to hear from him. I thanked him profusely and muttered, “I’m glad you liked it. Please feel free to tell me about any mistakes.”

“You got everything right…”

“You are being too kind,” I interrupted.

“It’s brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed reading my story. I am impressed by the details and accuracy. You wrote a great story…Thank you…all the best, and God bless you!”

I was speechless, but I managed to say, “Thank you, Colonel. God bless you too!”

Joe Kittinger may not be a household name like Neil Armstrong, but, for all practical purposes, Kittinger was the first astronaut who blazed a trail for all astronauts and pilots, and even the astronauts revered him. Moreover, all those who know about his work, legacy, and humility will continue to draw inspiration from him and will appreciate that he was the world’s first spaceman and highest skydiver in 1960, when space knowledge was still in its infancy.

Thank you, Colonel Kittinger. May you Rest in Peace, and may your family, friends, and fans find strength and patience in this difficult time.

By Sitara Maruf

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