Within the year, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner hopes to break the record for the highest free fall jump. Retired U.S. Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger holds the current record, one he set in 1960. And, though acting as Baumgartner’s advisor, Kittinger will always be the man who jumped from the stratosphere before it was cool enough to be endorsed by Red Bull.
Baumgartner’s jump is under the Red Bull Stratos Mission to the Edge of Space backed by an international team of experts in aerospace medicine and engineering, pressure suit development, capsule design and creation, and balloon fabrication. The mission will take Baumgartner up to 120,000 feet. He’ll jump and break the sound barrier before releasing his parachute and making a smooth landing on the ground.
Kittinger didn’t have the same international support when he made his record jump. The U.S. Air Force pilot was recruited to join project Man High in 1955, a program designed to investigate the physical and psychological effects of spaceflight. It used balloons since they could stay at near-space altitudes longer than aircraft. On June 2, 1957, Kittinger remained inside a small pressurized compartment for almost seven hours and climbed to 96,000 feet on one such mission.
In 1958, Kittinger joined Project Excelsior, a program set up to determine whether parachutes were a suitable escape method from a space capsule or high-altitude aircraft. This was pertinent data; at the time no one knew whether humans could survive a jump from the edge of space.
Kittinger went up to 76,000 in Excelsior I on Nov. 16, 1959. The jump almost killed him. The small drogue parachute that deployed before the main chute to stabilize his descent opened early, caught him around the neck, and sent him spinning towards the ground making 120 revolutions each minute. He was unconscious when his main parachute opened automatically 10,000 feet above the ground, but it did its job to slow his descent and save his life.
Unfazed, Kittinger went up again in Excelsior II less than a month later on Dec. 11. This balloon climbed to 74,700 feet; Kittinger set a free fall record waiting 55,000 feet before opening his parachute.
1960 was a big year for Kittinger, the year he secured the altitude free fall jump record. On Aug. 16, Kittinger floated to 102,800 feet in Excelsior III in just over an hour and a half. The small open gondola was decorated with a paper license plate his five-year-old son had cut out from a cereal box. Layers of clothing and a pressure suit protected him from temperatures as low as minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-70 degrees Celsius). The gear that kept him alive, including his oxygen and parachute, nearly doubled his body weight. Ignoring a searing pain in his right hand caused by a failure of the pressure suit, Kittinger stayed at his peak altitude for 12 minutes before stepping into space.
The free fall lasted just 13 seconds before a canopy parachute opened to stabilize his fall. After four minutes and 36 seconds, he had fallen to 17,500 feet where this regular parachute opened and he floated gently down to Earth.
During his descent, Kittinger approached but didn’t reach the speed of sound with speeds up to 614 miles-per-hour. But, he said, he had no sense of the speed. Beginning his jump above the atmosphere, there was no wind to rustle his clothes or rush by his ears. He had no reference points to know just how fast he was moving.
Kittinger’s jump proved that, properly protected, it’s possible for pilots and astronauts to eject from their vehicles at extremely high altitude. That he broke records was a bonus aspect of the mission. Now, under Kittinger’s guidance, Baumgartner and his team hope to take the lessons learned from the 50-year-old jump and push the envelope of the human body even further.