In 1960, Joe Kittinger opened the door to space.
In August of that year, the then-captain in the Air Force hopped into a gondola attached to a high-altitude balloon and ascended to a height of 102,800 feet above the earth.
Then, he did the unthinkable.
“I stepped to the edge, said a prayer and jumped,” he said.
The leap was part of the Excelsior project, a military experiment to test high-altitude parachuting capabilities. Wearing only a specially designed pressure suit, a stabilizing parachute and a main parachute, Kittinger’s job was to jump from the upper atmosphere and land safely back on earth.
The trip down wasn’t so simple, though. Jumping was the easy part.
“At first I had no sensation of falling,” he said. “It wasn’t until I turned and looked back at the gondola that it sunk in.”
The gondola appeared to be shooting off into space, getting smaller and smaller in Kittinger’s vision. But, this was just an illusion. Kittinger knew it meant he was hurtling back to earth at an incredible speed.
During the free-fall, which lasted four and a half minutes, Kittinger approached the speed of sound, maxing out at 614 miles per hour or Mach 0.9, and experienced temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It seems like a long time to fall, and it was, but I was busy the whole time,” he said. “I was taking readings for the guys on the ground, checking the suit and monitoring my status.”
At 18,000 feet, Kittinger released his main parachute and fell in a controlled descent the rest of the way. He safely reached the ground 13 minutes and 45 seconds after jumping from the gondola.
With one step, Kittinger launched himself into the record books and became an instant legend. His amazing jump set several records that still stand today, including the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump and longest free-fall. Kittinger also set a record for the fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere without the use of a vehicle.
“We didn’t just do this to break records,” he said. “We did it to make sure high-altitude pilots would be able to survive if they had to bail out.”
Amazingly, this was Kittinger’s third jump with the project. The first, which he made in November 1959, was from a height of 76,000 feet and nearly cost him his life. The small stabilizing parachute, meant to keep him from entering a “flat spin,” opened early, tangled around his neck and sent him spinning uncontrollably to the earth. Luckily, his emergency parachute opened automatically at 10,000 feet, slowing his descent and saving his life.
Despite this close call, Kittinger stayed with the project and performed his second jump a month later, this time from 74,700 feet. This jump was successful and paved the way for his historic third jump a year later.
“I believed in what we were doing, and I had faith in my team,” he said. “I didn’t just go out there one day and jump. We performed a lot of tests and experiments so that by the time I did start jumping I was confident we would be successful.”
The Air Force honored his achievements by decorating him with the oak leaf cluster for his Distinguished Flying Cross, and Kittinger was also awarded the C.B. Harmon International Trophy by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960.
Kittinger’s exploits didn’t end here, though. In fact, he was just getting started.
After Excelsior, Kittinger joined Project Stargazer, an astronomy experiment to study high-altitude astronomical phenomena from above the Earth’s atmosphere. In December 1962, Kittinger, along with astronomer William C. White, once again hopped into a gondola and rose to an altitude of 82,200 feet and hovered over Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The two checked variations in the brightness of star images caused by the atmosphere and made observations by telescope. The flight also provided useful information about the development of pressure and associated life support systems during an extended period on the edge of space.
After the Stargazer project, Kittinger returned to his fighter pilot background, serving three combat tours in Vietnam. During this time, he flew 1,000 hours and 483 missions and was credited with shooting down a MiG-21. On his third tour, Kittinger was shot down, captured and held as a prisoner of war for 11 months at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
“This was a tough time, but we never lost faith,” he said. “We kept faith in each other, in God and in our country.”
Kittinger was released from captivity in March of 1973, and he returned to active duty until he retired as a colonel in 1978.
During his career, Kittinger flew nearly 80 different planes and established himself as one of the service’s top pilots.
“I love the Air Force,” he said. “I owe so much to it and still consider myself lucky to be a part of such a wonderful service. The Air Force let me fly for a living, which is something I love to do.”
This love affair continued in his post-military life. He started flying older airplanes as a sky writer and barnstormer around the country, and he also started another of his aviation interests — hot air ballooning.
“I originally got interested in ballooning while part of the Excelsior and Stargazer projects,” he said. “And I really enjoyed it.”
Kittinger first had the idea in 1958. That year, he asked an Air Force meteorologist if it was possible to fly a balloon around the world. The answer was yes. This idea was always in the back of Kittinger’s mind, but when he was captured and spent time as a POW, he used the time in prison to work out the details.
In September of 1984, more than a decade after his release from Vietnam, Kittinger launched from Caribou, Maine, in a 3,000 cubic meter balloon. Eighty-six hours later, he landed near Montenotte, Italy, after covering 3,543 miles. Kittinger established a new world record for that class of balloon and became the first person to fly the Atlantic Ocean solo in a balloon.
This time, the achievement was just for the fun of it.
“I just wanted to do it for the heck of it,” he said. “To see if I could do it.”
Kittinger continued to accrue ballooning accomplishments throughout the 1980s, finishing first four times in the Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race, with three consecutive victories, and finishing second four times.
Today, at 83, Kittinger is still involved in the aviation community. He still flies planes and balloons, and he’s currently serving as an advisor to Felix Baumgartner, who is part of a project that is attempting to break Kittinger’s free-fall record.
“It’s not about my record,” he said. “Just like we were trying back in the 50s, this team is trying to find new ways to keep high-altitude pilots safe and I’m just trying to help them out.”
Kittinger has spent his life ascending to new heights, amassing new records and going beyond what were once thought to be human limits. But, for him, it wasn’t about the records or the adventure or the accolades.
For him, it was about stretching the horizon.
“Man has to push the limits now and then or he’ll never go any further,” he said.