On Aug. 16, 1960, Capt. Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. jumped from an open gondola wearing a pressurized suit, 102,800 feet over Tularosa, N.M., and landed unharmed 13 minutes, 45 seconds later as part of Project Excelsior. He fell freely for 84,700 feet and reached a speed of 614 miles per hour before opening his parachute. This was the highest jump and longest free fall on record. Project Excelsior was formed in 1958 to study and solve high altitude escape problems as jets became increasingly high performance.
During this project, there were three high altitude jumps accomplished from a balloon-supported gondola; the first from 76,400 feet; the second from 74,700 feet 25 days later; and on Aug. 16, 1960, from 102,800 feet, the highest altitude from which man has ever jumped.
In freefall for four and a half minutes, Kittinger fell at speeds up to 614 mph, exceeding the speed of sound. He experienced temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit. Kittinger opened his parachute at 18,000 feet and landed safely in the New Mexico desert after a 13 minute, 45 second descent. Project Excelsior successfully proved the new parachute system, the Beaupre Multi-Stage Parachute, would solve the problem of high altitude escape by crewmen.
Kittinger was born in Tampa in July 1928. He entered the Air Force in March 1949 as an aviation cadet. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in March 1950. From 1950 to 1953 he served as a jet pilot in the 86th Fighter Bomber Squadron in Germany and then was assigned to the Air Force Missile Development Center at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. On June 2, 1957, while stationed at the AFMDC, Kittinger made his first balloon flight in "Project Man High."
On June 2, 1957, Kittinger established the altitude-endurance record for manned lighter-than-air aircraft by remaining aloft in a balloon over Minnesota for six hours and 34 minutes. In the first flight of the Air Force's "Project Man High," his balloon flight reached 96,000 feet for two hours of the flight.
After being assigned to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, Kittinger, now a captain, was appointed test director of "Project Excelsior," investigating escape from high altitude.
In December 1962, under Project Star Gazer, Kittiger piloted a balloon into the upper atmosphere accompanied by U.S. Navy civilian astronomer to use a high powered telescope to view regions of deep space. They stay aloft for 18.5 hours above the skies of southwestern New Mexico.
Kittinger also volunteered for three combat tours in Vietnam and served as commander of the famous 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4s. After shooting down a MiG-21 in aerial combat, he himself was shot down on May 11, 1972 and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war.
Kittinger subsequently continued his career and retired as a colonel in 1978. He was a life-long aviation enthusiast, crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1989 in an balloon on a solo flight. He also wrote an autobiography in 1961, "The Long, Lonely Leap."
The Excelsior capsule is on display at the National Museum of the Air Force.