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Joseph Kittinger: The First High-Altitude Jumper

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Next week, “Fearless Felix” Baumgartner will attempt the highest, fastest free fall in history when he leaps out of a capsule 23 miles above Roswell, New Mexico wearing just a pressurized suit and helmet. But Baumgartner isn’t the first person to make a crazy jump like this. That distinction belongs to Joseph Kittinger, who made a series of high altitude jumps between 1959 and 1960.

In order to build space capsules that would protect humans at high altitudes, the Air Force needed to know how people would fare many miles above the Earth. So in 1957, they recruited Kittinger—a young jet pilot in the Flight Test Division of the Air Force Missile Development Center—to a pre-Space Age military project called Manhigh. He went through a series of trials, including a 24-hour claustrophobia test in the capsule and a test in the high-altitude, low-temperature test chamber, before the actual mission. On June 2, 1957, Kittinger piloted an aluminum-alloy capsule carried by a balloon to 97,000 feet, setting a balloon altitude record. But Manhigh was just the first step. In Project Excelsior, Kittinger jumped from the capsule, which hovered at the edge of space, three times over the course of two years.

Leaping into the Unknown

The first jump, in November 1959 from 76,400 feet, was almost Kittinger’s last. The sun was blinding despite the negative-104 degree temperature. As Kittinger fell, his helmet nearly lifted off his shoulders, and his pilot chute choked him into a blackout.

Thankfully, his back-up chute opened, and Kittinger survived—and, amazingly, was eager to make the next jump. It occurred just a month later, 74,700 feet above the Jornada del Muerto (which translates to “Route of the Dead Man”). The issues were ironed out, the jump was successful, and Kittinger was ready for the third and final Excelsior mission in August of 1960, from a height of 102,800 feet—more than 19 miles.

His only protection was his pressurized suit, which didn’t totally work. During the ascent, the pressurization in his right glove failed, causing his hand to swell to twice its normal size. Kittinger, however, was determined to make the jump, so he didn’t report his swollen hand until he was at altitude. Falling through 90,000 feet, the skyjumper reached the speed of 614 mph. By the time he touched down, Kittinger held records for the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere.

And when Baumgartner makes his attempt next week, Kittinger will be there: Not only did he advise Fearless Felix, he’ll serve as CapCom (Capsule Communications) for the mission, and be the only radio contact with Baumgartner during the fall.

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