The following is a research paper I wrote for English 102 at The College of Southern Nevada’s Spring 2014 semester. As part of the research, I secured a phone interview with the legendary retired Colonel Joseph Kittinger. I’d rank this memory as one of the greatest in my life, right below getting married and sitting in the Apollo Flight Director’s chair at NASA. 

Buy Joe Kittinger’s Autobiography
Buy The Pre-Astronauts by Craig Ryan
Buy Space Dive: The Red Bull Stratos Documentary

From Excelsior to Stratos: A Legend Paves the Way For His Successor

The moment of truth for the Red Bull Stratos project was October 14th, 2012 at 1208 hundred hours. After mission control walked skydiver Felix Baumgartner though forty-three egress checks, he depressurized his capsule and stepped outside to a space-like environment. There, he stood at the edge of the open capsule at 128,852 feet in the air above Roswell, New Mexico. Above him was a gas balloon about the size of a football field, his capsule suspended beneath it. Beyond that was the hostility of outer space. “Start the cameras and our guardian angel will take care of you,” was mission control’s wish of good luck. Felix saluted the world and spoke his now-famous words, “I’m going home now,” before he leapt for his attempt at the highest jump in history (Baumgartner). The man at mission control, retired Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger Jr, had been Felix’s mentor through the previous four years of training and was the most experienced person Felix could have to watch his back. Fifty-two years earlier, Kittinger set the previous record that Baumgartner was about to break and did much to pave the way for advances in space and aviation.

Joe Kittinger made the rivers of Florida his home away from home during his childhood and always had a thirst for adventure thanks to the loving mother and father who raised him (Personal Interview). Almost every weekend, he would sail the river and fish from his family’s boats. His fascination with airplanes began as a child. His toy planes brought him much enjoyment, and he would often play with them until they were too damaged to continue using. At that point, he would light them afire and send them on one final flight as a funeral. He would get lost for hours watching the planes come to and from the Orlando Airport, or as he called it, his “field of dreams.” After graduating high school, Kittinger first flew a plane belonging to his father’s friend, Phil Orr. From then on, he never thought of working another career (Come Up, 10).

The Air Force became its own division of the military in 1947, and after doing some research, Kittinger found that applicants could immediately apply for flight school if they already had two years of college. Due to the military downsizing their staff in post-World War II, the odds seemed pretty grim for Joe to join, but Kittinger had his mind, body, and soul invested in becoming a pilot. “I would have been devastated because I only had plan A” (Personal Interview). He was fortunately accepted in 1949 after a lengthy wait after his physical (Come Up, 11). During his early years in the Air Force, he travelled the world learning from and helping many cultures and people. He volunteered numerous times to fight in the Korean War, but ultimately was never stationed (Come Up, 19).

Kittinger always had an adventurous heart for volunteering and this often landed him in interesting missions. The most memorable being the work he did for Colonel John Paul Stapp. Stapp’s ultimate goal became saving lives after he witnessed the death of his infant cousin when the child suffered burns from getting too close to a fireplace. The Colonel was an early pioneer of space travel in that he researched different ways the human body could tolerate space-like conditions with his rocket sleds known as the Gee Whiz and the Sonic Wind (Pre-Austronauts, 14).

The most impressionable mission Kittinger performed during his early years working for Stapp was that of the rocket sled tests to see how much g-force a human could take. At the time, most scientists agreed that the human body could handle no more than -18 g’s of force. Kittinger would perform fly-bys past the sled testing grounds so that a photographer could capture the experiments from the air. During one test, Kittinger was shocked to find that Colonel Stapp was his own test pilot and had previously suffered horrifying injuries such as broken ribs, bleeding from the eyes, and lost tooth fillings. These tests earned Stapp the nickname of “The fastest man on Earth” (Pre-Astronauts, 27). Witnessing these experiments taught Kittinger a great lesson in leadership: That a leader, “would never ask someone to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself.” The experiments ultimately proved that a human body could handle well over double the g-force of what scientists had originally thought with Stapp surviving a whopping -41 g’s (Come Up, 19).

Kittinger’s next mission was Project Manhigh, an objective to travel to dangerous altitudes via balloon to see if pressurized capsules can be viable for space travel and could sustain life inside. Kittinger piloted the first mission with success up to 96,784 feet. The lack of atmosphere and the black sky enthralled him despite it being daytime during the flight. Kittinger enthusiastically wanted to fly another mission, but was ultimately grounded for the two remaining flights that were flown by other pilots. The second mission topped out at an altitude of 101,516 feet and set the record for the highest manned ballooned flight at the time. The third mission almost ended with the death of the test pilot due to the ground crew forgetting to place dry ice on the roof of the capsule to keep the interior at a safe temperature (Come Up, 65).

Following the success of Manhigh, Kittinger had to eject from a malfunctioning plane during a routine training mission. Shortly after that, Colonel Stapp asked Joe if he wanted to be in charge of his own project to see if parachuting from high altitudes could be viable. He readily accepted the challenge. “I just had my butt saved by an emergency escape system, and, of course, this was Colonel Stapp asking. If he wanted me, I wanted in.” This came to be known as Project Excelsior (Come Up, 70).

In Excelsior, Kittinger followed Stapp’s example and became his own test pilot to prove the faith he had in his team and their equipment. The target altitude for the jump would be 100,000 feet. This time, an open gondola under the balloon was used instead of a pressurized capsule to save time and money. Manhigh already proved the capsule concept worked. The capsule would also need to be opened for the pilot to jump anyway, so it was thought to be pointless by Kittinger. Excelsior’s pilot would wear a partial pressure suit with each body part isolated by an inflated rubber liner known as cap stans (Personal Interview). Without a pressurized capsule, the pilot would immediately know if the suit were to malfunction due to being out in the open during the ascent and could abort the mission if he detected any leaks. The suit took one hour for the wearer to don and another two hours for the user to acclimate to pure oxygen inside to prevent “the bends.” With the suit on, Kittinger weighed 320 pounds (“Original Space Dive”).

Kittinger’s parachute was designed by Francis Beaupre and was a three-stage system designed to prevent spin during descent. It was meant to be used at any altitude. The first phase was a drogue chute that stabilized the fall. The second phase was the pilot chute that grabbed hold of enough air to deploy the third, main chute.

Already in practice was his reserve chute which was made to deploy if the user was incapacitated. This was due to the need of a pilot’s parachute that could be used under any condition. The automatic deployment was caused by a device in the chute that measured the air pressure and would auto-deploy the chute at 10,000 feet. The reserve parachute ultimately saved Joe’s life during the first jump, when Kittinger spun out of control and lost consciousness when Beaupre’s chute deployed too soon and became twisted around Joe’s neck. The reserve’s auto-deployment activated right on time and brought Kittinger safely down. (Pre-Astronauts, 166).

Throughout the entire project, the Air Force thought the mission would be deadly and tried to bring the project to an early close multiple times. Colonel Stapp stepped up to defend Kittinger every time when Joe affirmed his own faith in the project and his men. “He was basically staking his career on my judgment.” Due to the desire to not want any bad publicity if Excelsior failed, the Air Force kept the mission under wraps, but ultimately not classified. The international aviation commission, FAI, would refuse to acknowledge the record Joe and his team were about to set, because Joe didn’t feel right spending taxpayer dollars to have their equipment and staff present (Come Up, 70). For Kittinger, the jump was never about setting a record. It was about saving lives and proving that an emergency escape was possible from extreme altitudes (Personal Interview).

On August 16, 1960, Joe faced the third and final jump for Project Excelsior over New Mexico. As he ascended in the balloon, Joe made the disturbing discovery that the right glove of his suit sprung a leak at 40,000 feet when one of the tubes to it broke. He opted to continue the mission in fear of the project being cancelled if he aborted. Joe paid the price of having his hand swell up to twice the size for the remainder of the operation and lost use of it until a couple of hours after he landed. The balloon ultimately rose to an altitude of 102,800 feet. Joe humbly spoke, “Lord, take care of me now,” before he jumped. The trip down was fairly smooth thanks to the stabilization chute on his parachute system. His only issue during the fall was the strap that held his helmet down began pulling at his head, but the issue went away at 14,000 feet (“Original Space Dive”).

The success of Project Excelsior is still felt today. Guinness came to recognize his jump in their book of world records, and every ejection seat today still utilizes a drogue chute. Kittinger proved to the world that humans could travel in space with the correct protective gear which paved the way for colleagues of his like Neal Armstrong to set foot on the moon. Joe Kittinger continues to give credit to Colonel Stapp for having faith in him and his team to achieve their goal. Joe says that he has been approached for advice almost monthly since Project Excelsior by adventurers looking to break his record, but he turned down all of them before Felix Baumgartner. The most notable of these attempts has been Nicholas Piantanida who was killed in his attempt. For reasons still unknown, he opened his faceplate at 50,000 feet (Come Up, 97).

Kittinger continued to make waves in the aviation world after his success with Excelsior. Though he gave consideration to joining N.A.S.A., Joe ultimately felt his was more of an asset to the U.S. Air Force (Personal Interview). He shortly afterward piloted another balloon in Project Stargazer with astronomer Bill White to 87,000 feet to observe the sky without atmospheric interference. In the Vietnam War, Joe fought in three tours until he was ultimately shot down and captured, then released at the end of the war eleven months later. He quit the Air Force five years after returning home. His passion for ballooning led him to set the record for the first solo balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean, and he claimed many victories in the Gordon Bennett balloon race. He also performed as a barnstorming pilot and is currently consulting a friend on crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a cluster balloon. One of Joe’s fondest memories was his heartwarming reunion with his mentor in 1997. Dr. Stapp introduced him at his induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame (Come Up, 103).

In 2005, Red Bull and stuntman Felix Baumgartner began planning the Stratos mission to break Kittinger’s record. Felix was an Austrian-born stuntman who was previously a paratrooper in their military. Since 1988, Baumgartner had been performing stunts in promotion for Red Bull and holds the records for highest and lowest jumps from a structure (Red Bull). Stratos won over Kittinger’s support and tutelage for the project after a meeting where, “it became obvious to me that Red Bull was concerned about safety and doing it in a professional manner.” Kittinger believed that private corporations had a future in space exploration because when making money is an interest, they could more effectively accomplish their goals (Personal Interview). Baumgartner’s pressure suit was made by the same company that made Kittinger’s suit. Felix’s combined weight with the suit totaled only 260 pounds versus 320 pounds which Joe weighed while wearing his own suit (Red Bull).

While almost fifty years have passed between Excelsior and Stratos, Stratos was not without its own problems. The project went over budget by $14 million and there was in-fighting among the team when the project director was replaced, although he was reinstated when other key members threatened to quit. Felix also had issues with the pressure suit he had to wear. He had never worn one before, similar to the ill-fated Piantanida. During one test jump, Felix’s parachute malfunctioned and detached, although his reserve chute worked. In another test, a fellow skydiver almost died when he lost consciousness without his air mask. The weather also proved to be a formidable foe when it forced the team to abort their first attempt at the record setting jump. Due to the balloon being constructed of polyethylene, after inflation, it had to be disposed (Baumgartner).

In the tense moments of ascent leading up to Felix’s jump on October 14th, 2012, Felix made the discovery that his faceplate heater was not functioning properly which caused his helmet fog over with every exhalation. He ultimately worked through this complication and attempted the jump after saluting the world live on the internet. During his fall, he achieved a speed of 1.25 times the speed of sound at a whopping 845 MPH and became the first human to break the sound barrier in free-fall. The world tensed up as Felix went into a spin during freefall which almost caused him to black out, but he recovered and landed safely. Stratos broke Kittinger’s records for highest altitude jumped from a balloon as well as the fastest speed of a human in freefall. Joe’s record for longest time in freefall at 4 minutes, 36 seconds remained untouched due to Felix’s speed of descent (Baumgartner).

On the ground, Joe Kittinger celebrated the success of a man who had the same goal he had 52 years earlier. With a live broadcast on the internet, people all over the world were able to witness an amazing scientific moment which can be described as this generation’s equivalent of the lunar landing. In their capsule and Felix’s suit, Red Bull held a plethora of instruments that absorbed information during the jump to share with the space exploration community. Red Bull described their project as, “[collection of] valuable data that could ultimately improve the safety of space travel and enable high-altitude escapes from spacecraft.” With the success of Stratos and their information, other companies can push toward a better and safer exploration of the final frontier (Red Bull). With that, Felix Baumgartner and the team behind him shared the same enthusiasm and dreams that Joe Kittinger and his team shared 52 years before. In Kittinger’s words, “I enjoy trying to help people realize their dreams” (Personal Interview). 

Works Cited

Baumgartner, Felix, perf. Space Dive: The Red Bull Stratos Story. BBC America. 2012. Film.

Kittinger, Joe, and Craig Ryan. Come Up and Get Me: The Autobiography of Colonel Joe Kittinger. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2011. Print.

Kittinger, Joe. Inside the Original Space Dive. National Geographic. 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Kittinger, Joe. Personal interview. 25 March 2014.

Red Bull Stratos Official Webpage. Red Bull. 2014. 14 Jan. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Ryan, Craig. The Pre Astronauts. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 1995. Print.