American Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger, Jr. in free fall after jumping from ‘Excelsior III,’ a balloon-supported gondola 102,800 feet above New Mexico, August 16, 1960. The clouds beneath him are 15 miles away.
Joseph Kittinger holds the records for having the highest, fastest and longest skydive. In freefall for four and a half minutes, Kittinger fell at speeds up to 714 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.
On August 16, 1960, Joseph Kittinger parachuted from nearly 20 miles above the earth’s surface. Before Project Mercury, before even the monkeys were launched into orbit, Joseph Kittinger would travel to the top of the world. On August 16, 1960, weighted with 320 lbs of gear, Joseph Kittinger stood 103,000 feet above the surface of the earth.
In the stratosphere there is no atmosphere, no wind, and thus no sensation of speed. But though he couldn’t feel it, Kittinger was gaining 22 miles an hour per second as he plummeted to earth. He hurtled through space and sky at over 600 miles per hour, approaching the speed of sound (in comparison, the average skydiver jumps from 13,000 feet and will only reach 115 mph). Kittinger was in freefall for over 4 minutes. It took 13 minutes and 45 seconds for him to finally reach the ground.
Kittinger participated in a handful of pre-Space Age projects. During Project Manhigh I (1957), Kittinger set a balloon altitude record of 96,760 feet and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1959 and 1960, he participated in Project Excelsior – a testing program created with hopes to design a parachute system that would allow a safe, controlled descent after a high-altitude ejection from an airplane.
It was during Project Excelsior that Kittinger set several world records:
- The highest parachute jump (over 102,800 feet).
- The longest parachute drogue fall. During this jump he towed a small drogue parachute for initial stabilization then fell for four minutes, thirty-six seconds before opening his main parachute. The jump is referred to as “The Long, Lonely Leap”.
- The fastest speed by a human alone through the atmosphere. During his highest jump he reached speeds up to 714 mph, breaking the speed of sound.
“The most fascinating thing is that it’s just black overhead – the transition from normal blue to black is very stark… I was struck with the beauty of it. But I was also struck by how hostile it is: more than 100 degrees below zero, no air. If my protection suit failed, I would be dead in a few seconds. Blood actually boils above 62,000 feet.”
: Skydiving From The Edge Of The World : Joseph Kittinger :
On August 16, 1960, Joseph Kittinger jumped his last Excelsior jump, doing so from an air-thin height of 102,800 feet (31,334 meters). From that nearly 20 miles altitude, his tumble toward terra firma took some 4 minutes and 36 seconds.