Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut to fly in space, was once asked if he would have done a high-altitude parachute jump as part of his training. “That’s easy,” Shepard said. “Hell no. Absolutely not.” But one man, the estimable Joseph W. Kittinger, had no such reservations and made not just one, but three jumps from the stratosphere. It’s an overstatement to say the first manned spaceflights wouldn’t have happened without Kittinger’s supremely risky work. But his jumps helped NASA better understand the risks so it could shape ways to cope as it raced the Soviets into space during the 1960s.
Joseph Kittinger died this week at 94, after a varied career of the sort not many military officers lead. In later life, Kittinger wasn’t as celebrated among pilots as say, Chuck Yeager or Bob Hoover, but during the early 1960s, his exploits were well covered in the popular press. I’m sure most of us have seen the iconic photo of his gondola exit on the recording-setting Excelsior III jump in August 1960. Belly to earth, he’s framed inside the gate rails of the open gondola 80,000 feet above a broken overcast. Life Magazine published the photo that month, but it reserved another for the cover with Kittinger splayed out as he rolls on his back seconds after exiting. Somehow, I had never seen this photo until this week.
Kittinger was born in 1928 which, as with all the Mercury astronauts except John Glenn, made him too young to fly during World War II but positioned him perfectly to participate in the emerging space race during the late 1950s. (Deke Slayton also flew in World War II, but although he was selected for Mercury, he did not fly in the program.) Chuck Yeager once said that flight test had been an undesirable backwater assignment but that his historic Mach 1 flight in 1947 changed that. That might have inspired Kittinger to request Air Force work in the aerospace R&D segment. After his flight training and initial work in piston and early jet fighters, he was assigned to Holloman Air Force Base where he crossed paths with another aerospace giant, John Paul Stapp.
The timing was propitious. The very year he arrived, 1954, the Lockheed F-104 Starfigter had its first flight, demonstrating speed and altitude capabilities far beyond the F-84s and F-86s Kittinger had flown. Its performance also outstripped the Air Force’s understanding of the survival aspects of high-altitude ejections and high-G exposure. Stapp was interested in both and initiated research with rocket-powered sleds, using himself as a test subject and creating more indelible imagery we all saw as kids.
Then, Oct. 4, 1957, happened. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, orbiting a tiny satellite. The country went a little nuts. The Reds were soon to be in a position to hurl nuclear bombs on the U.S. from outer space and what was the government going to do about it? One immediate thing was to establish NASA to take over the work of the former National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. NASA’s brief was all things space, with manned spaceflight a high priority.
But Stapp, Kittinger and David Simons were already investigating such things with two shoestring projects—Air Force, not NACA—designed to explore the physiological challenges at the fringe of space. Project Manhigh began in 1955 during which Kittinger flew in a balloon to an altitude of 96,784 feet, although the gondola was pressurized and he landed it by valving helium. No jumps. That would come during Project Excelsior, which began in 1958 with Kittinger as the test director. He made three test jumps, culminating in his record leap on Aug.16, 1960, from 102,800 feet.
As Al Shepard, no stranger to the ragged edge himself, noted, these flights represented crazy risk. Budgets were miniscule and the programs tested the very limits of novel technology. On Kittinger’s Manhigh ascent, his VHF radio failed immediately and an incorrectly installed valve vented his oxygen supply overboard. Plenty went wrong on the Excelsior flights, too. On the first, his faceplate fogged up, obscuring his view of his instruments. He exceeded his planned exit altitude by three miles. When he finally tried to leave his seat for exit, he was stuck for several minutes before he could free himself. And when he finally did, his stabilizing drogue prematurely deployed, its bridle wrapping around his neck and causing a 120 RPM spin. He was lucky to have survived, saved by an automatic opening device on his main parachute. He G-locked during the spin and regained consciousness only after landing in the desert.
On his final Excelsior jump, the pressurization in his right glove failed, causing it to swell painfully. He kept it from ground controllers and completed the flight successfully. Gutsy as he was, Kittinger still knew real fear. In his well-documented book, The Pre-Astronauts, author Craig Ryan reported that during debriefing when Kittinger heard himself repeatedly say “thank you God, thank you God” on his note recorder while descending under canopy, he couldn’t recall saying it. He angrily declared, “That is the voice of a coward!”
I doubt if anyone else would have thought that. Writing for National Geographic after Excelsior ended, Kittinger saw more applications for high-altitude balloon flights. “If we could put an astronomer with a telescope in a gondola and take him aloft for an unimpeded view,” he wrote, “we would see the heavens with new eyes.” And indeed, two years later, Project Stargazer launched, a high-altitude balloon flight with Kittinger and an astronomer aboard. But it didn’t sustain for lack of funding. But Stargazer foretold the Hubble and Webb space telescopes and Kittinger lived to see both.
Given his chosen profession, that was hardly a sure thing. Following Excelsior, at the age of 37, Kittinger went back to operational flying. He served three tours in Vietnam, flying A-26s and eventually the F-4. He was shot down by a Mig 21 in 1972 just days before his last tour was to end. He spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam before being repatriated with other prisoners in 1973. He returned to operational flying and retired in 1978.
But he wasn’t done with balloons and records. In 1984, he completed the first solo crossing of the Atlantic in a gas balloon and was active in reestablishing the Gordon Bennett Cup balloon competition. Kittinger gave freely of his time to help other record attempts, including Red Bull’s Felix Baumgartner’s breaking of Kittingers own free-fall altitude record in 2012. He was well known in the skydiving community and occasionally appeared at events I attended. He was outgoing and a terrific public speaker, colorfully relating the legacy of his life and the period he was fortunate enough to have lived in.
And what was that legacy? Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton summed it up succinctly: “We knew damned little at that time. That was an ambitious thing he did, and it was a valuable thing for the space program because when we got into Gemini, we had ejection seats for the first time and a lot of the information Joe gathered went right into the design. He also tested the prototypes of the pressure suits we wore.”
Just moments before he stepped off on that long, lonely leap, Kittinger radioed his own thoughts about space. “There is a hostile sky above me. Man will never conquer space. He may live in it, but he will never conquer it. The sky above is void and very black and very hostile.”
He has been proven right on both counts. Mankind has not conquered space but, thanks to the work of Joseph W. Kittinger, we have learned to live in it.