Thursday marks Kittinger's historic 'step'
Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. — Neil Armstrong might have made a "step" quote famous, but then-United States Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger Jr. made the "Highest Step in the World" famous this week more than 50 years ago.
On Aug. 16, 1960, just before 7 a.m., Kittinger stepped out of an open balloon gondola at 102,800 feet in an attempt to evaluate high altitude bailout techniques. The gondola was positioned over White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Kittinger's jump lasted 13 minutes, reaching a velocity of 614 miles per hour. That jump broke four world records: the highest open gondola manned balloon flight, the highest balloon flight of any kind, the highest bailout and the longest free fall. Today, Kittinger continues to hold the longest freefall - four minutes and 37 seconds.
After a 90-minute ascent, the gondola reached its predetermined altitude. "Joe," as his friends call him, had to wait 15 additional minutes as his gondola floated at the edge of space. His pressure suit had failed to inflate properly and his right hand was swelling to painful proportions.
"I couldn't do too much but wait. My hand was in so much pain, but I had to wait. Had I jumped I would have landed in the Pacific Ocean," he said in 2007. "I wasn't about to do that."
As he sat there and took in the view from the top of the world, he described the feeling as being "a weird sensation." He also said the edge of space was hostile and uninviting.
"There is a hostile sky above me. The sky is void and very black, and very hostile," he told ground controllers who were listening in from Holloman. "Man will never conquer space. He may live in it, but he will never conquer it."
Finally, the moment of truth came, and it was time to make history. Resting on the edge of space in a gondola that looked more like a tin can, Kittinger attempted to stand and prepare for his jump. A large group of technicians had helped him get his highly advanced, bulky suit into the position to jump, but no one was there to help him stand.
"We had practiced getting in, but no one was there to help me stand up," he said. "It took me a few tries to get myself up."
After several tries, Kittinger stood up, snapped off the communications antenna, activated the onboard television camera, moved to the door, looked down and stepped out into space. The step lead to what he called a "long, lonely leap."
Kittinger's fall was captured by a camera onboard the Excelsior III balloon and made national headlines all over the world. Life magazine displayed the historic photo on its Aug. 29, 1960 edition. The image shows a small figure "floating" toward a clouded blue marble.
The image is said to have "taken your breath away," but for Kittinger it was just another mission to prove man could go to space.
"The purpose of the Excelsior Program was to determine if we could put a man into space," he said in 2000 during one of his many visits back to Holloman. "We were looking at how a man could work in space, then we were looking at how to have a means of escape from very high altitude."
The temperature was estimated to be as low as 94 degrees below zero as he prepared to jump. His suit protected him from the extreme temperatures as he fell, but without it he would have lost consciousness within 12 seconds and been dead in two minutes.
"We identified yes, we could put a man into space, yes, he could work there and we also identified a means of escape from high altitude," he said. "We didn't do it to set a record, we did it to gather knowledge that we needed for the space program and the Air Force."
Kittinger spent another two years conducting high altitude balloon research with the Stargazer Project, which carried astronomers to high altitudes, before embarking on the first of his three combat tours in Vietnam. His first two tours were with the Air Commandos, flying Douglas A-26 attack aircraft. During his final tour as vice commander of a fighter wing operating the F-4D Phantom II, he scored a victory over a MiG-21. On May 11, 1972, just four days before the end of his third tour, Kittinger was shot down and spent the next 11 months as a prisoner of war.
Retiring as a colonel in 1978, Joe Kittinger most certainly did not retire from flying. Returning to his native Florida, he flew balloons and antique biplanes for his own air show, Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus. He began entering and winning gas balloon races and events in 1982 and quickly emerged as a major international competitor. He won the re-established U.S. James Gordon Bennett Balloon Race four times - 1982, 1984, 1985, and 1988, retiring the Cup.
Kittinger set a world record for the longest distance flown in a 1,000 cubic meter (35,300 cubic foot) balloon, traveling 3,220 km (2,001 miles) from Las Vegas, Nev., to Franklinville, N.Y., in 72 hours. He combined another world record for the longest distance flown with a 105,944 cubic foot balloon with the first solo balloon flight across the Atlantic, traveling 3,543 miles from Caribou, Maine, to Montenotte, Italy, in 86 hours.
Kittinger's decorations include the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster; Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with five Oak Leaf Clusters, a Bronze Star with "V" device and two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Harmon International Trophy, and two Montgolfier Diplomas for achievement in the air. He has logged over 11,000 hours of flight time in 62 different aircraft. In 2008, the National Air and Space Museum honored him with the Museum's Trophy for lifetime achievement.
On Oct. 14, 2012, Kittinger would watch as a "fearless" civilian, Felix Baumgartner, took the leap and fell from 128,000 feet up, breaking Kittinger's record held for more than 50 years. Kittinger assisted Baumgartner with his jump serving as his primary point of radio contact during his ascent. He also provided additional knowledge that helped Baumgartner with challenges he would face on the way up and during his record-breaking fall.
(Additional material for this story provided by the 49th Wing History Office)