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This Day in History: Joseph Kittinger, the Man Who Fell From Space

On this day in 1984, retired Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger completes a solo balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The trip was the first of its kind, but it wasn’t even Kittinger’s most challenging feat. Do you know about Kittinger’s stratospheric jump from more than 100,000 feet in the air?


The 1960 feat earned him the moniker “the Man Who Fell from Space.”

Kittinger set a world record for the highest parachute jump that day. It was a record that he held for decades, but he surely considered it a happy side effect of his real goal: to design safe parachute systems for our Air Force pilots who are forced to eject at high-altitudes—and to prove that man could be protected and survive in a space-like environment.


We all know that our military take risks on the battlefield. But Kittinger was one of those who took huge risks off the battlefield, too.


Kittinger’s involvement with Project Excelsior began in 1958, although the real air tests didn’t come until late 1959. That first attempt at jumping from a high-altitude nearly ended in disaster. Kittinger took a balloon up to 76,000 feet, but ran into problems within seconds of making his jump. His small parachute opened only two seconds into his fall. That little parachute was intended to stabilize him and prevent him from going into a fatal flat spin. Instead, it caught him around the neck and created the flat spin it was meant to avoid. Kittinger lost consciousness; he survived only because he had an emergency parachute that opened automatically at 10,000 feet.


Can you believe he went up and tried again, less than a month later? The second jump was a successful one from 74,700 feet. The real test came on August 16, 1960.


Kittinger had much to do to prepare for a ride into the stratosphere, as you can imagine.


“At 4 a.m. I began breathing pure oxygen for two hours,” he would later tell a reporter. “That’s how long it takes to remove all the nitrogen from your blood so you don’t get the bends going so high so fast.” He dressed in a protective suit and worked hard not to sweat. He couldn’t have wet clothes that would freeze on the way up!


Nevertheless, Kittinger ran into a problem at 40,000 feet. His pressure suit wasn’t working on his right hand. If he told the ground crew, they’d abort the test. So he kept going, without reporting the problem. “I took a calculated risk, that I might lose use of my right hand,” he later said.


Finally, after an hour and a half of climbing, Kittinger reached an altitude of 102,800 feet. He was on the edge of space! He disconnected from the balloon’s power supply and silently prayed: “Lord, take care of me now.” Then he jumped.


He looked up and at first thought that the balloon above his head was “just roaring into space.” Then he realized that he was the one moving at a “fantastic rate,” not the balloon. He was going 614 mph by the time he reached 90,000 feet. Kittinger would later describe much of the rest of his fall as “anticlimactic.” The chutes worked as designed and he fell safely to the ground.


Hmm. Anti-climactic to reach the ground safely while testing life-saving equipment for Air Force pilots? Perhaps only a hero such as Kittinger would make such a statement.

What do you think?

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