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Joe Kittinger Was the First Guy to Jump From Space: An Interview

That record – highest jump ever – belongs to Joe Kittinger, the American test pilot who once rode a balloon 20 miles above the Earth’s surface, well into the stratosphere, and jumped. His sponsor was the Air Force, and the project was secret. It was...

Today, if the weather is right, Austrian Felix Baumgartner will ride a balloon from Roswell, New Mexico, to the edge of space, backed by Red Bull's investment and an international team of experts in aerospace medicine and engineering, pressure suit development, capsule design and creation, and balloon fabrication. After ascending to about 23 miles, or 120,000 feet, he'll step out of his capsule and, one hopes, be the first human to break the sound barrier all on his own – before, one also hopes, opening his parachute and touching down. In that one little step, he'll be pursuing a record established a decade before he was born.


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That record – highest jump ever – belongs to Joe Kittinger, the American test pilot who once rode a balloon 20 miles above the Earth's surface, well into the stratosphere, and jumped. His sponsor was the Air Force, and the project was secret. It was 1960.

It took Kittinger some 14 minutes to return to Earth, riding backwards the whole way thanks to his heavy pack. With nothing but a proto-spacesuit on, he managed to shatter a host of other records, all in the name of defeating Communism: highest balloon ascent, most g-forces felt by human extremities (22 times the force of gravity), and fastest speed by a human body through the atmosphere, at 614 miles per hour, just shy of Mach-1.

Baumgartner, 42, is set to break those records, with Kittinger's help of course (he's been the younger astronaut's advisor on the project). And he's not the only one gunning for number one. In a chat with Richard Garriott earlier this year, the MMORPG mogul and patron of private space flight talked about his new hobby: rocket-powered space diving. No matter what happens next, Kittinger was still first. And at 84, he's still got the right attitude. And he'll always hold on to one record, one that's sure to be debated by astronauts but recognized by those of us looking up: he was the first man in space. The below interview was conducted by Mason Anderson-Sweet in 2009.

"Jumping from Space" (Spacecraft Films)

What was project Man High and how did you become involved?
Col. Joe Kittinger: I was assigned to the fighter-test section at Holloman Air Force base, which is in New Mexico. It was there I first met Dr. John P. Stapp. He was the chief of the air medicine lab at Holloman. I started flying special projects with him: Man High, Excelsior, and Stargazer. On the Man High program, we were trying to develop a means of escape from high altitude, for astronauts and people flying at great altitude. The system that we designed in 1959/1960 is still being used today. Every ejection seat in the world; US, Canadian, Russian, whatever, has a small stabilization parachute like the one developed for my program. Dr. Stapp approached me and told me about the project, and I immediately volunteered. I was the lucky person who got to make the jump.

I'm interested in the experience of being up there. Were you scared?
Well, first of all, I was a test pilot and I was used to flying by myself. I was used to doing things with aircraft. This balloon, even though it was a balloon, it was still an aircraft. I felt fairly comfortable even though it was a very small and confining atmosphere. Shortly after take off I had a problem with my radio and I couldn't transmit, I had to use Morse code, which is very slow and laborious. I spent a lot of time transmitting what was happening rather then enjoying what was going on.


After that, I discovered there was a valve that had been installed backwards in my life-support system and I was venting the oxygen that I needed for pressurization. I was venting it at a very fast rate so from then on I had to very carefully manage my remaining oxygen supply to keep the capsule pressurized. When I finally got to altitude, 97,000 feet, I'm looking up and it's absolutely black overhead. I had never been that high before. It was just amazing to look up and see the black sky. It's really a shocking event to behold. Every astronaut and every pilot who goes high altitude has the same marvel of looking at that black sky.

I was very busy but I was happy–it was exciting. One of the doctors got a little concerned. I had already been trying to get the balloon to come down for an hour but the sun kept heating it up and it wouldn't come down. This guy on the ground kept calling up "We need you to come down right now. Well I got ticked off at this guy bugging me so I tapped out in Morse code "C-o-m-e u-p a-n-d g-e-t m-e." And that got them all excited and upset. I didn't have any concern about my safety, though; I figured I could take care of myself. We had the emergency systems I could have used. I had faith in myself. I had faith in my equipment, and I had faith in the team that I was working with. That's what it takes.

Kittinger ready for his first Project Excelsior jump at Alamorgordo Air Force Base, New Mexico, in November 1959

What was Project Excelsior like?
We spent a year and a half in preparation for the first jump. I had made 100 altitude-chamber flights, in preparation. I had thought about 1,000 times in my mind what I was going to do and how I was going to do it, but, I only had 33 actual jumps when I made my jump from 103,000 feet. When it came time for me to take off, I was excited. Here it was: I had worked a year and a half for this day. I took off and the balloon climbed up on schedule, no problems.

When I reached 75,000 feet I was supposed to jump out, but I couldn't stand up because this water bottle that had expanded and trapped me in the seat. I finally jerked myself out of the seat. When I did so I started a timer going that shouldn't have been pulled until I jumped. When I jumped from the capsule, instead of falling for 17 seconds before the small drogue chute came out, I only fell two and a half seconds. The chute came out and wrapped around my neck. It was not deployed. I knew right away I was going to be free-falling the way the dummies had, with out any stabilization and I knew it was going to be a very exciting free fall because I was up there to demonstrate the way to properly do it, and the way to properly do it was with a drogue chute deployed.


I started free-falling and I did pretty good. I turned to look to the left and I stopped the rotation, and I turned to the right and I stopped the rotation. I was doing good, I was in a good body control. Then all of a sudden I had a violent spin to the right and I stopped that. Then I had a violent spin to the left and I couldn't pull my arms in, the centripetal force was so great. I lost consciousness, and I came to with my emergency parachute open. I was relieved that I was still alive, but I was disappointed that we had a procedural problem getting out of the capsule and that it almost proved fatal to me. I wanted to go back and do it immediately, as soon as we found out what had caused the problem, because I wanted to demonstrate that we had a good system.

A month later I went up again and this time I did it from 76,000 feet. The problem we had on the first flight didn't happen and the jump was perfect.

Then after that came the 103,000 ft one.
Right. Now I always felt that if the pressure suit failed or the helmet failed on the first two jumps that I had a chance to live. But here I knew that if something failed on my pressure suit, or my regulators, that I was going to die very quickly. Psychologically there was a difference between the 75,000 foot jump and the 100,000 foot high jump, because of the added danger of the low pressure. But, everything went pretty much on schedule and when it came time to go I stood up, I looked out at the earth, 20 miles bellow me, and I could see for 450 miles. I had confidence in my team, my equipment, myself, and I was ready to go because I was heading back down into a friendly environment. So I said a silent prayer; I said "Lord, take care of me now." Then I hit the camera button and jumped. That was the beginning of four and a half minutes of free fall. The more I fell the happier I was because I was getting back down to a friendly environment.


What was the feeling of that first step?
It was just a step. I was there to do exactly what I had done. As I said, I had worked a year and a half for that. It was the quickest way down.

Tom Wolfe wrote about something he called "post-orbital remorse," the depression that some astronauts experienced after having been in space. Did you feel anything like that at the conclusion of the program?
No, that's a writer's process to make up such things. I don't think it bothers the real aviators.

Why then, at the peak of your test pilot career, did you decide to go to Vietnam?
Well, because there was a war on and I was a fighter pilot. When my Stargazer Program was over–the one where we took the telescope up–I went over there and I had three combat tours. I flew in 63 and 64, 66 and 67, and 71 and 72. In 1972 I was a squadron commander of the Triple Nickel fighter squadron, which was the best fighter squadron in the United States Air Force. As a matter of fact, we shot down more MiGs then any other squadron in the Air Force or Navy. I shot down a MiG myself on the 1st of March, 1972. And on the 11th of May, 1972, I was shot down during an engagement with a MiG. I ejected myself and my back seater, safely. I landed and I was incarcerated for 11 months in Hanoi. I was finally released with the rest of the POWs in March of 1973. When I got shot down, that was my 483rd combat mission and I had 1,000 hours of combat.


Why were you willing to take these risks?
Because it needed to be done. There was information out there that we needed to get. We knew that it took some risks to be involved with it. But really none of us felt we were gonna get killed by what we were doing. We planned it properly, we executed it properly, we trained properly, and when we did it we were prepared for it. In all of the human experimentation that Dr. Stapp was responsible for there was never anyone killed from the exposure to all the harsh environments they were subjected to.

Kittinger meeting Felix Baumgartner before a Red Bull Stratos test in November 2011.

What does someone need to go to the edge and come back?
Attitude is everything. I'll tell you what, there aren't many Dr. Stapps left around. They're not many leaders around that have the courage that he did. I doubt that, today, I could get permission from an Air Force general to jump from that altitude. They're too concerned about their careers. I don't know any Dr. Stapps today that would step forward and make decisions like he did. If I had been killed he would have been subjected to professional ridicule the rest of his life for killing someone in an experiment. It took tremendous courage on his part to sponsor the research that he did. There were a lot of people that didn't have it. I think that the attitude today is different then it was 50 years ago. These days we're too worried about careers, and ridicule. People aren't as willing to take risks as they were 50 years ago. People's careers mean more to them nowadays.

How do you feel about the current state of aviation and space exploration?
I think we hung around with the space shuttle much too long. We should have gone on from the moon flights much more aggressively. I think we've spent an awful lot of our national treasure on a space shuttle that does not contribute that much to science. Now, we're suffering from the economy and probably going to be cutting back drastically on the entire space program. Probably going to be quite a while before we get the initiative and the resources to again attack the conquest of space.


This interview originally appeared on March 5, 2010