He helped pave the way for manned spaceflights by ascending in a balloon to 102,800 feet and then free-falling for 16 miles while wearing parachute safety equipment. On a summer’s day in 1960, Joseph Kittinger appeared to be a character from science fiction as he leaped out of a balloon gondola over 20 miles above the New Mexico desert.
He experienced a 13-second free fall while wearing specialist clothes and a pressure suit to shield him from the minus-94-degree air. Then, as intended, his little stabilizer parachute inflated to stop a spin that may have killed him. Before his conventional parachute opened, he continued to free fall for an additional 4 minutes, and 36 seconds, reaching a height of 17,500 feet.
Mr. Kittinger, who passed away on Friday in Florida at the age of 94, was not as well-known as the original Mercury 7 astronauts or the men who walked on the moon, but he was a pioneer in aviation who helped pave the way for the United States first manned spaceflights.
Joseph Kittinger, a Record-Setter High in the Skies, Dies at 94
— StratoCat (@stratoballoon) December 10, 2022
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mr. Kittinger participated in experimental Air Force programs over New Mexico to test conditions that potential astronauts might encounter. During these programs, he set records for the highest balloon flight—102,800 feet—the longest free fall—about 16 miles—and the fastest speed ever attained by a human under his own power—descending at up to 614 miles per hour.
Felix Baumgartner, a former Austrian paratrooper, and professional daredevil, broke those records in October 2012 by ascending more than 24 miles above the earth before starting his free fall. Mr. Kittinger assisted in Mr. Baumgartner’s training before directing him as mission control’s voice.
In the last hours before Mr. Baumgartner’s plunge, Mr. Kittinger said, “Felix trusts me because I know what he’s going through—and I’m the only one who knows what he’s going through.”
When the Smithsonian gave Mr. Kittinger its highest honor, the National Air and Space Museum Trophy, for his career achievements in 2008, he said to ABC News, “We were in the pioneer part of the space program.
According to The Associated Press, former Florida congressman John Mica made the announcement of his death. Lung cancer was the root reason. Mr. Kittinger lives in the Orlando region and is survived by his wife Sherry.
Mr. Kittinger entered combat following his ballooning for the Air Force. Before being shot down and taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, he completed 483 fighter-plane sorties. He completed the first solo balloon trip over the Atlantic Ocean after leaving the Air Force.
After his transatlantic balloon journey in 1984, he told U.S. News and World Report, “Life is an adventure, and I’m an explorer.” “You simply have to take the risk. The American way is that.
Yet again in awe of the quiet accomplishments of others. https://t.co/g3wQUvSn2V
— Matt Sztajnkrycer (@NoobieMatt) December 10, 2022
joseph William Kittinger Jr., who was raised close to Orlando, was born on July 27, 1928, in Tampa, Florida. When he spotted a Ford Trimotor at a nearby airfield, he became fascinated with aircraft. At age 17, he made his solo flight in a Piper Cub. He spent two years studying at the University of Florida before enlisting in the Air Force in 1949.
Midway through the 1950s, he was sought out for Operation Man High, an Air Force effort that involved employing balloons capable of high-altitude flight with a pressurized capsule or basket suspended from them. He had previously flown experimental planes and taken part in aerospace medical research. The objective was to ascertain whether humans could tolerate prolonged space-like altitude travel.
Mr. Kittinger ascended in the first Man High balloon in June 1957, spending over seven hours in the air and reaching a height of 96,000 feet. Aware that a future astronaut could have to escape a capsule, he joined Project Excelsior in 1958 to test whether people could survive a parachute drop from the edge of space.
In November 1959, Mr. Kittinger piloted the Excelsior I balloon to a height of 76,400 feet before getting ready to leap from his gondola. The subsequent events nearly resulted in his death.
As he emerged, his left arm became stuck to the door, and the time it took him to release himself led to the premature deployment of the little parachute that was meant to keep him from entering a dangerous spin.
Mr. Kittinger was thrown into disarray when the parachute hooked him around the neck. At 120 rpm, he was falling toward Earth, but his primary parachute released at 10,000 feet, as it was supposed to, slowing him down and saving his life.
A little more than three weeks later, he was in the air once more. He flew in Excelsior II up to 74,400 feet before falling out.
Major David Simons of the Air Force set the previous record for altitude in his Man High II balloon in 1957, but Mr. Kittinger broke it in August 1960 by ascending to 102,800 feet in the Excelsior III balloon, surpassing it by about 1,300 feet.
Then Mr. Kittinger made another gondola jump. I asked the Lord to take care of me right now, he recalled. That was the ferventest prayer I have ever offered.
He was in good condition when he touched down, but his right glove from his pressure suit had broken during his climb and left his hand bloated and in pain.
Then he went on to Project Stargazer, which was developed to research life support systems over an extended length of time at the edge of space and watch the stars and planets from a high height. In his final high-altitude balloon journey, Mr. Kittinger reached 82,200 feet in December 1962 while being accompanied by astronomer William C. White.
After his balloon ascents, Mr. Kittinger entered combat, completed three tours of duty in Vietnam, rose to the rank of the squadron commander, and shot down a North Vietnamese jet. He served 11 months in the Hanoi Hilton jail camp when his fighter was shot down in May 1972.
He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross more than thrice and retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1978.
Mr. Kittinger fantasized about taking a long-distance balloon journey while he was being held captive. He transported the Rosie O’Grady balloon from Caribou, Maine, to a hilltop near Savona in northern Italy in September 1984. In that historic transatlantic solo trip, he was in the air for 83 hours and 40 minutes and covered 3,543 miles.
Later, Mr. Kittinger operated Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus in Orlando, where he offered balloon rides to patrons. He also participated in balloon races and barnstormed in a biplane at air shows.
My workspace is still the sky, he said in 2003, according to The Virginian-Pilot. 52 years after Mr. Kittinger’s record-breaking achievements, Mr. Baumgartner was about to jump out of his capsule 128,100 feet over the New Mexico desert when Mr. Kittinger, who had gone through a lengthy checklist with him, said: “Our guardian angel will take care of you now.”
Mr. Baumgartner broke the sound barrier for the first time without the use of external power when he hit 833.9 miles per hour in free fall. Similar to Mr. Kittinger’s achievement, his was funded by the Red Bull energy drink firm and supported by a NASA-style operation.
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