Click on Picture to enlarge


The Man High Project

+ Larger Font | - Smaller Font


Joe Kittinger is not a household aviation name like Neil Armstrong or Chuck Yeager, but what he did for the U. S. Space Program is comparable.  

On Aug. 16, 1960, as research for the then-fledgling U. S. Space Program, Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger rode a helium balloon to the edge of space, 102,800 feet above the earth, a feat in itself.  

Then, wearing just a thin pressure suit and breathing supplemental oxygen, he leaned over the cramped confines of his gondola and jumped--into the 110-degree-below-zero, near-vacuum of space.  Within seconds his body accelerated to 714 mph in the thin air, breaking the sound barrier.

After free-falling for more than four and a half minutes, slowed finally by friction from the heavier air below, he felt his parachute open at 14,000 feet, and he coasted gently down to the New Mexico desert floor.

Kittinger's feat showed scientists that astronauts could survive the harshness of space with just a pressure suit and that man could eject from aircraft at extreme altitudes and survive.
 Upon Kittinger's return to base, a congratulatory telegram was waiting from the Mercury seven astronauts--including: Alan Shepard and John Glenn.

More than four decades later Kittinger's two world records--the highest parachute jump, and the only man to break the sound barrier without an aircraft and live--still stand.   We decided to visit the retired colonel and Aviation Hall of Famer, now 75, at his home in Altamonte Springs, Florida, to recall his historic jump.

FORBES GLOBAL: Take us back to New Mexico and Aug. 16, 1960.

Joe Kittinger:  We got up at 2 am to start filling the helium balloon. At sea level, it was 35 to 40 feet wide and 200 feet high; at altitude, due to the low air pressure, it expanded to 25 stories in width, and still was 20 stories high!  At 4 am I began breathing pure oxygen for two hours. That's how long it takes to remove all the nitrogen from your blood so you don't get the bends going so high so fast. Then it was a lengthy dress procedure layering warm clothing under my pressure suit. They kept me in air-conditioning until it was time to launch because we were in the desert and I wasn't supposed to sweat.  If I did, my clothes would freeze on the way up.

How was your ascent?
It took an hour and a half to get to altitude. It was cold. At 40,000 feet, the glove on my right hand hadn't inflated. I knew that if I radioed my doctor, he would abort the flight. If that happened, I knew I might never get another chance because there were lots of people who didn't want this test to happen.
I took a calculated risk, that I might lose use of my right hand. It quickly swelled up, and I did lose use for the duration of the flight.  But the rest of the pressure suit worked. When I reached 102,800 feet, maximum altitude, I wasn't quite over the target. So I drifted for 11 minutes. The winds were out of the east.

What's it look like from so high up?  
You can see about 400 miles in every direction. The formula is 1.25 x the sq. root of the altitude in thousands of feet. (The square root of 102,000 ft is 319 X 1.25 = 399 miles.)
The most fascinating thing is that it's just black overhead, the transition from normal blue to black is very stark. You can't see stars because there's a lot of glare from the sun, so your pupils are too small.

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. I went through my 46-step checklist, disconnected from the balloons power supply and lost all communication with the ground. I was totally under power from the kit on my back. When everything was done, I stood up, turned around to the door, took one final look out and said a silent prayer: "Lord, take care of me now." Then I just jumped over the side.

What were you thinking as you took that step?

It's the beginning of a test.  I had gone through simulations many times--more than 100. I rolled over and looked up, and there was the balloon just roaring into space. I realized that the balloon wasn't roaring into space; I was going down at a fantastic rate! At about 90,000 feet, I reached 714 mph.
The altimeter on my wrist was unwinding very rapidly. But there was no sense of speed. Where you determine speed is visual--if you see something go flashing by. But nothing flashes by 20 miles up--there are no signposts there, and you are way above any clouds. When the chute opened, the rest of the jump was anticlimactic, because everything had worked perfectly.

I landed 12 or 13 minutes later, and there was my crew waiting.  We were elated. How about your right hand?  It hurt--there was quite a bit of swelling and the blood pressure in my arm was high.  But that went away in a few days, and I regained full use of my hand.

What about attempts to break your record?

We did it for air crews and astronauts--for the learning, not to set a record.  They will be going up as skydivers. Somebody will beat it someday. Records are made to be broken.  And I'll be elated.  But I'll also be concerned that they're properly trained.  If they're not, they're taking a heck of a risk.

Forbs Magazine



The First Big Step


Click on Picture to enlarge

The U.S. military has often been involved in setting aviation records. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Golden Age of Air Racing, members of the military competed in the National Air Races and set several records, helping to improve aviation technology in the process. Jimmy Doolittle set several records in the 1920s and 1930s, both as a member of the military and as a civilian. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, another person who set records as a member of the military and in the mid-1980s as a civilian was Joseph Kittinger, Jr. While a member of the U.S. Air Force, Kittinger's work using high-altitude balloons helped the nation in the earliest days of the space program. He reached into the highest layers of the atmosphere and provided information on how humans would react to the rigors they might encounter. Through his high-altitude parachute jumps, he helped increase their chances of survival, while setting several records, some of which have never yet been broken.

Click on Picture to enlarge

The huge plastic balloon which carried Lt. Col. David G. Simons to a record altitude of 102,000 feet rises from the open-pit iron mine in northern Minnesota where it was launched

Joseph Kittinger was born on July 27, 1928, and grew up near Orlando, Florida. He became fascinated with planes at a very young age when he saw a Ford Trimotor at a nearby airport. As a youth, he persuaded local pilots to give him free rides, and he soloed in a Piper Cub by the time he was 17. Kittinger attended the University of Florida for two years, then left to join the U.S. Air Force in 1949 as an aviation cadet and earn his wings. He served as a NATO test pilot in Germany until 1953, when he was assigned to the Air Force Missile Development Center at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. At Holloman, Capt. Kittinger flew experimental jet fighters and participated in aerospace medical research. In 1955, he flew the T-33 observation plane that monitored the "rocket-sled" experiment of aircraft medicine pioneer Col. John Paul Stapp in which Stapp took his aircraft to 632 miles per hour (1,017 kilometers per hour) to test how gravitational stress affected the human body.

Stapp recruited Kittinger for Project Man High, a project begun in 1955 that would use balloons capable of high-altitude flight and a pressurized gondola (the basket or capsule suspended from the balloon) to study cosmic rays and to determine if humans were physically and psychologically capable of extended travel at space-like altitude (above 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere). The Air Force had determined that a high-altitude balloon flight was the best way to conduct these studies since aircraft could remain at these altitudes for periods of time that were too short to provide useful data. Using a two-million-cubic-foot (56,634-cubic-meter), 172.6-foot (52.6-meter) diameter balloon and a cramped aluminum alloy capsule manufactured by Winzen Research of Minneapolis, Kittinger made the first Man High ascent on June 2, 1957, remaining aloft for almost seven hours and climbing to 96,000 feet (29,261 meters). The lessons learned from his flight and two other Man High flights later in 1957 and in 1958 by Major David Simons and Lt. Clifton McClure that went even higher and set new records were used later in NASA's Project Mercury.

In 1958, Kittinger moved to the Escape Section of the Aeromedical Laboratory at Wright Air Development Center's Aero Medical Laboratory. There, he joined Project Excelsior, which investigated the use of a parachute for escape from a space capsule or high-altitude aircraft. At the time no one knew whether humans could survive a jump from the edge of space.

Click on Picture to enlarge

Kittinger readies himself for a high-altitude jump, standing beside the Excelsior gondola.

The sign at the lower edge of the gondola says: "This is the highest step in the world."

On November 16, 1959, Kittinger piloted Excelsior I to 76,000 feet (23,165 meters) and returned to Earth by jumping, free falling, and parachuting to the desert floor in New Mexico. The jump almost cost him his life. His small parachute, which served to stabilize him and prevent him from going into a fatal "flat spin," opened after only two seconds of free fall instead of 16, catching Kittinger around the neck and causing him to spiral uncontrollably. Soon he lost consciousness, as he tumbled toward Earth at 120 revolutions per minute. Only his emergency parachute, which opened automatically at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), slowed his descent and saved his life.

Click on Picture to enlarge

Captain Kittinger ascending in the Project Excelsior balloon gondola.

In spite of his close call, he continued with the project and the flight of Excelsior II, which took place on December 11, 1959. This balloon climbed to 74,700 feet (22,769 meters) before Kittinger jumped from his gondola, setting a free-fall record of 55,000 feet (16,764 meters) before pulling his parachute ripcord.

The next year, Kittinger set two more records, which he still holds. On August 16, 1960, Kittinger surpassed the altitude record set by Major David Simons, who had climbed to 101,516 feet (30,942 meters) in 1957 in his Man-High II balloon. Kittinger floated to 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) in Excelsior III, an open gondola adorned with a paper license plate that his five-year-old son had cut out of a cereal box. Protected against the subzero temperatures by layers of clothes and a pressure suit--he experienced air temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius)--and loaded down with gear that almost doubled his weight, he climbed to his maximum altitude in one hour and 31 minutes even though at 43,000 feet (13,106 meters) he began experiencing severe pain in his right hand caused by a failure in his pressure glove and could have scrubbed the mission. He remained at peak altitude for about 12 minutes; then he stepped out of his gondola into the darkness of space. After falling for 13 seconds, his six-foot (1.8-meter) canopy parachute opened and stabilized his fall, preventing the flat spin that could have killed him. Only four minutes and 36 seconds more were needed to bring him down to about 17,500 feet (5,334 meters) where his regular 28-foot (8.5-meter) parachute opened, allowing him to float the rest of the way to Earth. His descent set another record for the longest parachute freefall.

Click on Picture to enlarge

Joseph Kittingerďs high-altitude jump, 1960.

During his descent, he reached speeds up to 614 miles per hour, approaching the speed of sound without the protection of an aircraft or space vehicle. But, he said, he "had absolutely no sense of the speed." His flight and parachute jump demonstrated that, properly protected, it was possible to put a person into near-space and that airmen could exit their aircraft at extremely high altitudes and free fall back into the Earth's atmosphere without dangerous consequences.

Click on Picture to enlarge

Quarters are cramped inside the Stargazer gondola.

After Excelsior, Kittinger moved on to Project Stargazer, which began in January 1959. This balloon astronomy experiment studied high-altitude astronomical phenomena from above 95 percent of the Earth's atmosphere. This vantage point allowed undistorted visual and photographic observations of the stars and planets. On December 13-14, 1962, Kittinger, along with astronomer William C. White, rose to an altitude of 82,200 feet (25,055 meters) and hovered over Holloman Air Force Base in the Stargazer gondola. The two checked variations in the brightness of star images caused by the atmosphere and made observations by telescope. The flight also provided useful information about the development of pressure and associated life support systems during an extended period on the edge of space. This was Kittinger's final high-altitude balloon flight.

But he did not rest on his achievements. Kittinger volunteered for three combat tours in Vietnam, flying 483 missions. On May 11, 1972, he was shot down and spent 11 months in captivity as a prisoner of war. It was during this time, he said, that he dreamt of an around-the-world balloon flight.

He retired from the Air Force in 1978, and began ballooning around the country and entering balloon competitions. Kittinger won the Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race four times during the 1980s and retired the trophy after three consecutive victories. In November 1983, he established a new world record by flying a 1,000 cubic-meter (1,308-cubic-yard) helium balloon from Las Vegas, Nevada, to New York, covering 2,001 miles (3,220 kilometers) in 72 hours. The next year, Kittinger became the first person to fly alone by balloon across the Atlantic Ocean. Setting out on September 14, 1984, from Caribou, Maine, in the 3,000-cubic-meter-Rosie O'Grady, he floated 3,543 miles (5,702 kilometers), touching down in Cairo Montenotte, Italy, on September 18, by Kittinger's account, 83 hours and 40 minutes after launch. His flight set a record for both the longest solo balloon flight and a distance record for this class of balloon.

Although after this flight, his record-setting days ended, Joe Kittinger has never stopped flying. He has piloted 78 different types of aircraft over the years and received numerous military and civilian awards and decorations. He is an aviation consultant and a barnstormer, touring around the country with his open-cockpit biplane and taking children on their first airplane rides. A person who helped open the portal to space, in the year 2002, he is still a vital part of the aviation community.


Flights Of The Man High Project



Balloons As Forerunners Of Spaceflight And Exploration

For those watching carefully, World War II showed the first signs of the beginning of the space age. For the first time, a rocket with a warhead in its nosecone, the V-2, flew 60 miles (97 kilometers) up into space, crossed a continent, and bombed a major city—London. Combat aircraft climbed almost into the stratosphere, and the upper atmosphere became the higher ground the military wanted to conquer for strategic superiority.

The war had temporarily halted progress in balloon technology, but driven by the need to better understand the environment of the upper atmosphere, the military jumped into balloon research after the war. The problems to be faced by future military pilots, and, eventually, astronauts venturing into space, inspired the human high-altitude balloon flights of the 1950s and 1960s. Life-support systems, pressure garments, high-altitude parachutes, and other equipment all needed to be tested for the harsh environment of near space. The new plastic balloon technology made it possible to send human missions to the very edge of space to investigate aerospace medicine and the human factor.

In 1954, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) began the Strato-lab training program for manned balloon ascents to the upper atmosphere. Naval officers M. Lee Lewis and Malcolm Ross flew two training flights above 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) in 1956. These flights marked the first return of a manned U.S. balloon to the stratosphere since 1935.

In November, Ross and Lewis were ready for the first Strato-lab I flight in a pressurized gondola that was essentially a crewed space laboratory. For this flight, the ONR used the new thin plastic polyethylene, which made it economical to build very large balloons. On November 8, 1956, Ross and Lewis ascended to 76,000 feet (23,165 meters) under the first plastic 2,000,000-cubic-foot (56,634-cubic-meter) balloon, breaking Orvil A. Anderson and Albert W. Stevens' 1935 altitude record of 72,395 feet (22,066 meters).

At about the same time, the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense (DoD) began two projects to study high-altitude escape procedures. The Air Force's Man High project and the DoD's High-Dive Project were closely related efforts to develop high-altitude escape equipment and test re-entry vehicles from a balloon. In the High-Dive Project, which began in 1953, the DoD used live parachute jumps from balloon gondolas to address the problems of jumping from aircraft traveling at high speeds and miles above the surface of the Earth. It was already known that pilots flying at those altitudes needed to drop quickly immediately after leaving their aircraft to escape the inhospitable upper atmospheric layers before opening their parachutes. Then they needed to avoid the potentially fatal flat spin, which, while spinning faster and faster uncontrollably, could tear a man apart. This project developed the multistage parachute for this purpose. The 140 live drops culminated on December 11, 1959, when Captain J.W. Kittinger made the highest jump ever, 102,000 feet (31,090 meters) up, from the Excelsior II balloon. Kittinger landed safely on the ground after falling almost 20 miles (31 kilometers) thanks to the multistage chute. However, the chute was never adopted by military pilots.

Project Man High began in December 1955, to study the effects of high-altitude flight on humans in small capsules like those that would be flown in space. The Man High I capsule was about the size of a telephone booth, 8 feet by 3 feet (2.4 meters by 0.9 meter) at its widest point, and filled with instrument panels. Captain Kittinger also flew the first Man High balloon in 1957. Major David Simons flew Man High II for an altitude record. For the third flight, Man High III, the pilot was selected by a process that later would be used for astronaut selection. This included a claustrophobia test, pressure test, heat stress test, and a parachute jump. Lieutenant Clifton McClure was selected. During his 1958 flight, McClure endured 137 percent more heat than it was thought a body could tolerate while, at the same time, performing well enough to record ideas for improving the next flight as he descended in his balloon. David Simmons, who was the flight surgeon for McClure's flight, summed up what McClure taught them about human spaceflight: "An essential quality necessary to an astronaut would be stamina; not in a purely physical sense but in a psycho physiological sense: a combination of deep physical reserves plus the all-important emotional determination to use those reserves."

In October 1957, these flights to prepare humans for entering space took on new significance when the Russians launched the first satellite, Sputnik I. A few months before the Man High III flight, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the successor to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which had included Orville Wright on its first advisory board. The space race was on.

Otto Winzen, who engineered the polyethylene balloons for many of the record-breaking flights of the 1950s, recognized that manned balloon flight was the logical predecessor to human spaceflight. He observed in 1958: "It is now generally recognized in scientific circles that the manned balloon capsule is the prototype of the manned space cabin. It serves not only for the study of the human factors of space flight, but for the selection and training of space pilots and as a test bed for the multitude of accessories and components which will eventually go into the construction of the sealed cabin will carry the first man into space."

On May 4, 1961, the Navy launched the final Strato-lab V from the deck of the aircraft carrier Antietam. Aircraft carriers make excellent launch sites, since they can match winds up to 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour) and reduce the relative force across the flight deck to the equivalent of a dead calm. Three weeks before the flight, Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space. One day after the flight, Alan Shepard was launched on America's first suborbital flight.

At a volume of 10 million cubic feet (283,169 cubic meters), Strato-lab V was the largest human-piloted balloon ever flown and set an altitude record that still stands—113,740 feet (34,668 meters). The pilots wore suits being tested for the Mercury astronauts. Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather drowned in his heavy suit when he slipped from the rescue helicopter harness.

With astronauts and cosmonauts orbiting the Earth in the 1960s, the second era of human high-altitude balloon ascents drew to a close. The Man-High and High-Dive (Excelsior) projects and Strato-lab had helped pave the way for humans to enter space.

--Linda Voss


Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Payne, Lee. Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of the Airship. N.Y.: Orion Books, 1991.

“Project Excelsior.” Release No. 88-60. U.S. Air Force Office of Information Services. Air Research and Development Command. August 1960.

Ryan, Craig. The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Winzen, Otto C. "From Balloon Capsules to Space Cabins," Proceedings, IXth International Astronautical Congress, Amsterdam, 1958. Vienna, 1959.



Joseph W. Kittinger Jr.


Click on Picture to enlarge

Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr.

Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., was born in Orlando Florida in 1928. He began his aviation fascination at an early age, dreaming of flying while watching planes at the Orlando Municipal Airport. He was accepted in the USAF aviation school in 1949. He served in the Air Force for 28 years, retiring in 1978. His military career included a variety of assignments from Fighter Pilot to Experimental Test Pilot, to staff assignments to an F-4 Squadron Commander and Vice-Commander of an F-4 Fighter Wing. On 1 May 1972, during his third combat tour, he was shot down in aerial combat near Hanoi and was a POW there until his release in March 1973. He is also a Master Parachutist, has experienced five High Altitude Research Balloon Flights, and has extensive experience in low altitude helium and hot air balloons.

Colonel Kittinger is probably best known for his accomplishments as an early "space hero," a characterization which first appeared in the cover story of the 29 August 1960 issue of Life magazine. Kittinger participated in the path breaking stratospheric balloon programs of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Projects Man High and Excelsior, the latter of which tested a pilot's ability to survive an ejection from newer high-flying jet aircraft and set the stage for America's first manned spaceflight efforts in the following years. In collaboration with Colonel (Dr.) John Paul Stapp, himself a pioneer in space medicine, his high altitude balloon flights during Man High and his three remarkable Excelsior jumps also provided some of the earliest data on the effects of a near-space environment on the human body and mind. For Excelsior III on 16 August 1960, as an Air Force captain, Kittinger jumped from an open balloon gondola at 102,800 feet, the highest man had ever gone in an un-powered flight. He plummeted to earth, traveling 16 miles in 4 minutes and 36 seconds, before his main chute opened, the longest free-fall in history. Kittinger's jumps served many purposes in the United States' early space exploration, especially testing man's ability to survive high above the earth. He was quoted as radioing back a frightening first hand view of space, "There is a hostile sky above me. Man may live in space, but he will never conquer it." In December 1962, under Project Star Gazer, Kittinger piloted a balloon into the upper atmosphere accompanied by a civilian astronomer to use a high-powered telescope to view regions of deep space never before seen unhindered by atmospheric distortions.

Kittinger still holds the record for the highest parachute jump and first man to exceed the sound barrier (714 mph) in free-fall, for the Excelsior III jump. He has the most high altitude balloon flights (five): Man High I (96,000 ft); Excelsior I (76,000 ft); Excelsior II (75,000 ft); Excelsior III (102,800 ft); and Stargazer (86,000 ft). He also holds several other balloon records including the Longest Distance flown in a 1,000 cubic meter helium balloon (2001 miles in 72 hours, in 1983), the Longest Distance flown in a 3,000 cubic meter helium balloon (3543 miles in 86 hours, in 1984), and the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic in a helium balloon (Maine to Italy in September 1984).

Colonel Kittinger's awards are significant and numerous. His military decorations include among many others the Distinguished Flying Cross for Project Man High and the Distinguished Flying Cross for Project Excelsior. His civilian decorations include the Harmon International Trophy (Aeronaut), the Aeronaut Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, the John Jeffries Award for outstanding contributions to medical research, the Aerospace Primus Award, induction into the USAF Special Operations Hall of Fame, the FAI Montgolfier Diplome, the Order of Daedalians Distinguished Achievement Award, induction as a Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, the National Aeronautics Association Elder Statesman of Aviation Award, the Barnstormer of the Year Award, and induction in 1997 into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He also has received numerous awards for solo transatlantic balloon flights.

Colonel Kittinger has written several articles about his 1960 leap for various periodicals, including "The Long, Lonely Leap," in 1961. He is still very active in aviation and space, serving as an Aviation and Aerospace Consultant and Barnstormer in a 1929 New Standard Open Cockpit Bi-Plane. He is also the subject of a new Naval Institute book, The Pre-Astronauts.

On August 16, 1960, Captain Joe Kittinger jumped from a huge helium balloon at a height of 102,800 feet, almost 20 miles above the earth! Captain Kittinger fell for a full 4 minutes, 36 seconds.


Into The Void: Project Man High, Excelsior, and Stargazer

Balloons carry men to the edge of space-and Joe Kittinger breaks the sound barrier without a plane The Manhigh II gondola. Manhigh II weighed in at 1,648 lbs. The balloon that carried it to 101,516 ft would expand to a diameter of 200 ft, with a volume in excess of 3,000,000 cu. ft. USAF Photo.


Man High II

By the mid-1950s, aircraft were being produced or planned that were capable of flying to the outer reaches of the Earth's atmosphere. While the need for pressure suits was understood, there were still many variables that were not, such as the strength and effect of cosmic rays.

In Dec. of 1955, the Air Force established Project Manhigh to study these and other unknowns. Manhigh would be a series of manned, high-altitude balloon flights launched from White Sands Proving Ground (now White Sands Missile Range) in the New Mexico desert. The Manhigh balloons would fly as high as 100,000 ft, above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere, where there was less atmosphere to filter out many of the rays in question. Three test pilots were named to fly these missions-Capt. Joseph Kittinger, Maj. David Simons, and Lt. Clifton McClure.

Click on Picture to enlarge

Joe Kittinger, USAF

Joe Kittinger, USAF. Joe was born July 27, 1928 in Orlando, FL. He took his first airplane ride in a Ford Trimotor at the local airport when he was two, and fell in love with flying at a very early age. He joined the Air Force in 1949 and went into flight training. He served as a fighter pilot in Germany until 1953, when he was assigned to the USAF Missile Development Center at Holloman AFB, NM. There, he flew all kinds of test and research missions, including zero-G research, and as a chase plane pilot for the high-G, 600+ MPH rocket sleds carrying the legendary Dr. John Stapp. When Stapp was put in charge of Manhigh, he tapped Kittinger as his prime pilot. USAF Photo.

On June 2, 1957, Joe Kittinger made the first of three Manhigh flights, Manhigh I. The balloon carried the pressurized Manhigh I gondola to 97,000 ft. Inside, despite the pressurization system, Joe was wearing the same basic type of partial-pressure suit worn by the pilots of contemporary jet fighters and X-planes-just in case.

Click on Picture to enlarge

Manhigh II instrument panel. USAF Photo.

 The next flight was that of Maj. David Simons and Manhigh II , on Aug. 19, 1957. Manhigh II reached the highest altitude of the program, at 101,516 ft-establishing a new altitude record for manned balloons. The flight was a long one-32 hr 10 min. Manhigh II is now on display at the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, OH. 

Click on Picture to enlarge

Maj. David Simons, Manhigh II. LIFE Cover. 

The third and final Manhigh flight was Manhigh III on Oct. 8, 1958. On this mission, Lt. Clifton McClure reached an altitude of 98,000 ft.

Man High was an invaluable step on the way into space. Not quite 2 months after Maj. Simon's record-setting Man High II flight, the Soviets launched Sputnik I. By the time Lt. McClure flew, Project Mercury was in the very early planning stages, and data obtained on Man High flights would prove extremely valuable to that program.

Click on Picture to enlarge

Joe prepares to enter the Excelsior gondola prior to a high-altitude jump. Note the sign under the hatch. USAF Photo.

Before Manhigh was even over, Joe Kittinger moved on to work with a team led by engineers at Wright-Patterson AFB to investigate the problems encountered during high-altitude ejections. With the new generation of Air Force jets flying higher and faster than ever before, much work had to be done to figure out how to give the pilots a safe way out if anything went wrong. Jets like the new F-104 Starfighter and the U-2 spyplane were flying in excess of 80,000 ft-and nobody had ever successfully bailed out from that high before.

The project was called Excelsior-Latin for "ever higher." Since Excelsior didn't have access to the hardware needed to really test aircraft ejections from that high-after all, it would mean ejecting from the airplane, which the Air Force would like to have returned to them in one piece-Excelsior would use a large, Manhigh-type helium balloon, equipped with a specially-made gondola. The pilot would bail out using a partial-pressure suit and a new stabilization parachute system devised by engineer Francis Beaupre. And Joe Kittinger would be the only man for the job.

The first flight, Excelsior I, was on Nov. 16, 1959, from Holloman AFB. Joe leaped from the gondola at an altitude of 76,400 ft-and almost didn't survive it. The stabilization chute tangled, causing him to spin uncontrollably, until the centrifugal forces caused him to lose consciousness. Fortunately, the new system also featured an automatic system to deploy the main chute at 12,000 ft, and Joe was saved. On with the program.

Excelsior II flew on Dec. 11, 1959, and the jump was made at 74,700 ft. This time, the system worked as advertised, and the data was used to plan the third and final jump, Excelsior III, which was supposed to be the highest one yet-100,000+ ft. 

Click on Picture to enlarge

"Lord, take care of me now...." Aug. 16, 1960. Joe Kittinger jumps from Excelsior III at 102,800 ft. USAF Photo.

Excelsior III launched on Aug. 16, 1960. Joe probably shouldn't have done it-he lost pressure in his right pressure glove, causing extreme pain from the blood pooling in his hand. But he didn't feel that was enough to cancell the mission, so he went ahead. Excelsior III kept climbing until it reached 102,800 ft-the highest altitude yet reached by a manned balloon. But Joe wasn't finished.

Outside, the air temperature was -100 deg. F. Joe Kittinger stood on the edge of the gondola, looking down at the New Mexico desert 20 miles below him, and said, "Lord, take care of me now...."

And he jumped.

Click on Picture to enlarge

Joe Kittinger, Excelsior III. LIFE Cover.

“I had absolutely no sense of the speed. I didn’t hear a sonic boom; I didn’t even hear any whooshing or whistling of the wind. But when I flipped over and looked back at my balloon, it sure was an eerie sight — the sky was black as night but I was bathed in sunshine.”-Joe Kittinger

Joe was in freefall for 4 min 36 sec-and nearly 17 miles....and during this plummet from the edge of space, he reached a speed of 714 MPH, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier without the aid of any kind of vehicle. His parachute opened automatically at 12,000 ft.

 Joe landed in a heap, but he got up and greeted his crew, saying, "I am very glad to be back with you all!" His right hand was swollen to almost twice its normal size, but he recovered. Joe Kittinger walked away from Excelsior III with 3 world records-highest open-gondola balloon ride, longest freefall, and longest parachute descent. In Oct. 1960, President Eisenhower awarded Joe Kittinger the Harmon Trophy for outstanding achievements in aeronautics.

Excelsior was over. It not only provided data useful to USAF jets, but also in the development of the X-15 and Gemini escape systems.

Click on Picture to enlarge

  The Stargazer gondola. USAF Photo.

But Joe Kittinger wasn't done with balloons. In addition to his work testing high-altitude pressure suits and space suits, Joe and astronomer William C. White participated in Project Stargazer, a 2-man observatory carried to very high altitudes by a helium-filled mylar balloon that was 400 ft tall at launch, but flattened out and expaned to a diameter of 280 ft at altitude. On Dec. 13-14, 1962, Joe and Dr. White rode Stargazer to 82,000 ft over Holloman AFB, where they made detailed telescopic observations above the majority of the atmosphere, and conducted numerous high-altitude pressure suit, life-support, and aero-medical experiments.

Click on Picture to enlarge

The Stargazer

Joe Kittinger and astronomer William C. White aboard Stargazer. After a record 5 high-altitude balloon flights, Joe went back into the fighting Air Force-flying combat missions in Vietnam. First, he flew B-26K Counter-Invaders with the Air Commando units, and then, F-4s with the 555th "Triple-Nickle" TFS. He shot down a MiG-21 on March 1, 1972, but on May 11 of that year, just 4 missions shy of completing his tour, he was shot down over Hanoi, and spent 11 months at Hoa Lo Prison-the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Thankfully, he was released. While interned there, though, one of the things that kept him going was dreaming of flying a balloon around the world. He came back home and won numerous ballooning championships, and on Sept. 18, 1984, he became the first man to complete a solo balloon flight across the Atlantic. Today, Joe Kittinger still flies-this time, barnstorming around the country in a 1929 New Standard biplane. If you see a guy offering rides in a '29 New Standard at your local airshow, do it-and ride with one of the true pioneers of spaceflight. USAF Photo.


Flights Of The Man High Project




Last Updated