In the late ’50s, the Air Force began researching whether a pilot could survive bailing out of a high-altitude, supersonic fighter. There was only one way to find out: find a human who was willing to conduct such an experiment.
Project Manhigh, Kittinger’s first trial, put him in a sealed gondola attached to a high-altitude balloon. He flew to 96,000 feet, demonstrating a balloon could provide the height needed to replicate an aircraft flying in the stratosphere. The next step was to jump with a parachute from a balloon at that height, a project dubbed Project Excelsior, Latin for the phrase “ever upward.”
This phase of the experiment put Kittinger in an open gondola. His balloon took him to 76,000 feet, but when he jumped, his parachute malfunctioned, tangling around his neck. He passed out and dropped 12,000 feet, but was thankfully saved by the main parachute, which was rigged to open automatically. Three weeks later, undeterred, he successfully jumped from a balloon at 74,000 feet, and was subsequently presented with the Harmon International Trophy by President Eisenhower.
August 16, 1960, was Kittinger’s most notable test. Ninety minutes after leaving earth, Kittinger’s gondola achieved an altitude of 102,800 feet. His specially engineered suit was the only thing protecting him from temperatures of more than 100 degrees below zero. Any problem would mean certain death.
The one accident that did occur was serious but not life-threatening. At 50,000 feet, Kittinger experienced sharp pains in his right hand. The glove didn’t inflate, his right hand swelled up and he considered radioing the medical staff, but he knew they’d demand that the mission be aborted. He decided to continue the drop, knowing he might lose the use of his hand permanently. (Luckily, he regained full use several weeks later.)
Having decided to proceed with the experiment, Kittinger let the balloon to take him to 102,800 feet. When he was over the project target, he said a quick prayer, then jumped.
In an interview with Forbes, Kittinger described his experience: “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 the 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.”
Just over four minutes into the jump, Kittinger’s main chute opened. He landed eight minutes later at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The experiment was a success, and Kittinger set four remarkable world records: the highest open-gondola balloon ascent, the longest free fall, the longest parachute descent and the first and only person to break the sound barrier without an airplane.
But Kittinger said he didn’t do it for the records. “We did it for air crews and astronauts—for the learning,” he said. “Somebody will beat it someday. Records are made to be busted. And I’ll be elated.”