Joseph Kittinger traveled to the edge of space—and jumped.

On August 16, 1960, Joe Kittinger went for a balloon ride. Sitting inside an open gondola suspended from an enormous helium-filled envelope, the U.S. Air Force captain rose to a height more than 19 miles above the Earth’s surface. His mission that day—part of Project Excelsior—was to test a new parachute system for jet pilots forced to eject at high altitudes.

Stratosphere balloons, such as this one at White Sands, New Mexico, in 1962, are not fully inflated near ground level. That’s because, as the balloons rise higher, the gas inside expands. Pumping the balloon with too much gas could cause it to burst while ascending.

Project Excelsior, though, had another, some might say loftier, objective. In the next few months, NASA hoped to launch the first American into space and scientists still knew little about how such an extreme environment would affect human physiology. Project Excelsior provided NASA with the data it needed to ensure the safety of its astronauts.

“It was absolutely vital,” said Gordon Cooper, one of NASA’s Project Mercury astronauts, in a 1988 interview about Kittinger’s efforts. “We had to know if we could build the right kind of equipment to sustain life. We didn’t have any idea about the body’s stability at high altitudes or what kind of dynamics the human body would go through.”

An automatic camera in the gondola of Kittinger’s balloon took this photo, just prior to the aeronaut’s third and final high-altitude jump over southern New Mexico on August 16, 1960.

Clad in a pressure suit, this would be Kittinger’s third and final jump from the far reaches of the stratosphere. Although the temperature was 35 degrees below zero, Kittinger was sweating as he waited for mission control to give him the “go” sign for his parachute jump.

While biding his time, he took in the view of his surroundings. Far below, he could make out clouds gathering around his intended landing site in New Mexico, as well as a few worldly landmarks. He could also see the curvature of the Earth and the bright blue sky of the troposphere fading away beneath him.

When Kittinger looked up, he was struck by the sight of an immense dark void. As he later recalled in his 2010 autobiography, Come Up and Get Me: “It was the blackest black I’d ever seen. Blacker than ink. And it was morning! The sun was shining, but the sky surrounding it was the color of midnight.”

As the time neared for the jump, Kittinger grew concerned about his right hand, which had swollen to twice its normal size and was very painful. During the ascent, one of his protective gloves had failed to pressurize, leaving his hand vulnerable to the intense cold and near-vacuum. The hand was so sore that Kittinger realized he would not be able to pull the ripcord during his descent. He would have to rely on the automatic setting of his altimeter to release the parachute. Kittinger did not let the ground crew know about his predicament until the last minute for fear of a mission abort.

With the countdown nearing zero, Kittinger stood up and moved to the edge of the gondola, below which was posted a sign: “This is the highest step in the world.” He said a short prayer—“Lord, take care of me now”—and then made the long lonely leap into history.

On Aug. 16, 1960, then Capt. Kittinger stepped from a balloon-supported gondola at the altitude of 102,800 feet (31,300 meters). In freefall for 4.5 minutes at speeds up to 614 mph and temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit, he opened his parachute at 18,000 feet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

No Room for Error

Kittinger plummeted 102,800 feet on that August day, a world record he would hold for decades.

Before Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, John Glenn—before any human had rocketed away from Earth—Kittinger had reached the frontier of space.

And he had done so with aviation technology that was two centuries old.

The balloon that carried Kittinger was 200 feet tall, 172 feet wide at its widest point, and held approximately two million cubic feet of helium. “Stratosphere balloon envelopes tend to be much larger than those of hot air balloons you see at lower altitudes,” says Thomas Paone, a curator in the aeronautics department of the National Air and Space Museum. “They also may appear to be underinflated at launch as they do not fill them to 100 percent near ground level. That’s because as they get higher in altitude, the gas in the balloon expands, so they need to calculate that expansion into the size of the balloon or risk the balloon bursting.”

“We needed to get up that high and stay there for a period of time to prove human beings could go above sensible atmosphere and live to tell the tale,” says Doug Lantry, historian and curator at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. “In the 1950s and early 1960s, we didn’t have aircraft or [crewed] rockets that could reach those heights and stay there for very long. The only way to do this was with balloons.”

“They paved the way—they did it first,” says Craig Ryan, author of the 1995 book, The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space. “These pioneers who made these first crucial steps were kind of forgotten after the space program lifted off.”

Kittinger tested a multi-stage parachute—designed by Francis Beaupre—to prevent pilots from going into flat spins at high altitudes.

It wasn’t the career path that Joseph William Kittinger II had initially imagined for himself. Born in 1928, he’d wanted to become a fighter pilot after admiring the heroics of American aces in World War II. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1949 and earned his wings the following year.

Kittinger had hoped to see combat in the Korean War. Instead, he spent the duration with the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany. The young pilot also volunteered to test-fly F-86G Sabre jets in Copenhagen. His success with that assignment earned Kittinger a transfer to the Air Force Missile Development Center at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where he met Colonel John P. Stapp. The Air Force flight surgeon had begun tests to understand the effects of gravitational and other forces on the human body. “Someday soon we’re going to go into space, and we don’t know if man can survive,” he told Kittinger.

A ground crew assists Kittinger in removing his flight gear after the record-setting leap in 1960. 

In 1955, Stapp would be named the “fastest man on earth” in a Time cover story that documented his grueling experiments using a ground-based rocket sled. Stapp was not willing to risk the lives of others, so he appointed himself the primary test dummy. He would ride on a rail-mounted rocket sled at speeds up to 632 mph, testing the effects of rapid acceleration and deceleration. (His rocket sled, Sonic Wind No. 1, is on display in the Nation of Speed gallery at the National Air and Space Museum.) The tremendous G-force stresses on Stapp’s body caused broken bones, burst blood vessels, and even temporary blindness.

Colonel John P. Stapp, a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon, was determined to find answers to the critical questions about human endurance in space.    


Stapp showed that humans could withstand up to 46 Gs with proper protection—far greater than the 20-G limit the Air Force had set at the time. Using the data yielded by the rocket sled tests, Stapp developed a series of new procedures and safety equipment to protect pilots, astronauts, and the U.S. consumer. One of his inventions is still used in automobiles today: the three-point seatbelt system.

Kittinger was impressed by Stapp’s toughness and his determination to find answers to the critical questions about human endurance in space. “In time, I would come to the conclusion that Col. Stapp was not only one of the smartest men, but also quite possibly the bravest man in the United States Air Force,” Kittinger wrote in his memoir.

Time named Stapp the “fastest man on earth” for his grueling experiments using a ground-based rocket sled, Sonic Wind No. 1.

“Kittinger and Stapp did the real thing,” says Milton L. Windler, a former Air Force fighter pilot who joined the Mercury program in 1959, before serving on the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, space shuttle, and International Space Station projects. “They put their lives on the line. They also trained a lot of people who came over and worked with NASA. We really tried to build on the experience that already existed at the time.”

Project Manhigh

Impressed with Stapp, Kittinger transferred to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where he signed on with Stapp’s initial high-altitude medical research program, Project Manhigh. Kittinger endured a battery of physical and psychological tests to determine if he was up to the challenge. Those grueling trials would become NASA’s benchmark for qualifying the Mercury 7 astronauts and other future space explorers.

“They had to screen these guys because the conditions could cause claustrophobia,” says Paone. “It takes a while to get that high. Some of the systems you see later in NASA come from this era of testing in the 1950s and ’60s.”

During a Project Manhigh mission, Kittinger checks the scientific equipment inside his capsule-like gondola prior to ascending more than 96,000 feet.

For Manhigh, the aeronauts completed their missions in enclosed, sealed gondolas that resembled early diving bells. In a near-vacuum with temperatures as low as 90 degrees below zero, loss of pressurization would result in unconsciousness in about 10 seconds and death in three minutes.

“Joe had been a test pilot,” says Tom Crouch, a curator emeritus at the National Air and Space Museum who knew and admired Kittinger. “Risking your skin to push science and technology wasn’t anything new to him. He and the other aeronauts stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base had complete faith in John Paul Stapp and the rest of the team there.”

Crouch’s father had worked as an engineering technician at Wright-Patterson. Crouch and Kittinger bonded over that connection. “My dad was always telling me about the fantastic work that the guys in the machine shop did to support all of the base researchers,” he recalls. “They could manufacture whatever odd thing you need for a test. When I first met Joe and he found out that I grew up as a Wright Field kid, he launched into the same raves about what the guys in the machine shop did to support Stapp’s team.”

Project Manhigh sent three balloons up to near space. Kittinger reached an altitude of 96,800 feet on June 2, 1957; Major David G. Simons reached 101,516 feet during his 32-hour flight on August 19–20, 1957; and Lieutenant Clifton M. McClure flew to 98,100 feet on October 8, 1958.

Major David Simons rode inside this gondola to an altitude of 101,516 feet, becoming the first human to see a sunrise and sunset from the top of the Earth’s atmosphere.

“They did things that no one else had done before,” says Lantry. “David Simons was the first human to see a sunrise and sunset above the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The Air Force pressed even further with Project Excelsior, during which Kittinger leapt from an open gondola. Stapp wanted to test a new parachute design invented by Air Force technician Francis F. Beaupre in hopes of eliminating the deadly flat spin that had occurred in other high-altitude situations.

In freefall, the body tends to rotate uncontrollably before reaching an atmospheric level where the parachute can inflate. The Air Force’s Project High Dive—which used test dummies at high altitudes in the mid-1950s—recorded flat spins in excess of 200 revolutions per minute. For a human, that would result in loss of consciousness and most likely death.

The Beaupre multi-stage parachute seemed to be the solution. Employing a smaller drogue chute, like the kind used to slow aircraft on landings, pilots ejecting at high altitudes could control their descent and prevent a flat spin.

Kittinger would be the one to test it. He was the aeronaut for all three Excelsior missions, rising to 76,400 and 74,700 feet for the first two trips on November 16 and December 11, 1959. Each time, he remained at peak altitude for up to 12 minutes before stepping off the open gondola and free falling to earth. On his third and final jump, Kittinger plummeted for 4.5 minutes, reaching 625.2 mph.

He almost didn’t survive the first test. Kittinger’s drogue chute deployed too soon and failed to unfurl, causing suspension lines to wrap around his neck. He went into a flat spin of 90 rpm and lost consciousness. Fortunately, Beaupre had anticipated this possibility and included an automatic reserve chute, which deployed at 10,000 feet. Beaupre’s backup plan saved Kittinger’s life.

With that key lesson learned, the next two flights went better—that is, until Kittinger’s right glove failed to pressurize prior to his last jump due to a broken seal. “I’m sure Joe made a mental calculation about how long he could go with that situation,” says Lantry. “Could he withstand the pressure and temperature gradient at that altitude? Could he live through that? I guess all his training and knowledge came to bear on that problem. He made the judgment that he did and lived to tell the story.”

Despite the mishap with the glove, Kittinger’s protective suit was far superior to those that would be worn by the Mercury 7 astronauts. He was clad in an Air Force MC-3 pressure suit with a portable life support system, which kept him alive as his open-air gondola ascended through the stratosphere. The Mercury 7 astronauts appreciated the risks Kittinger undertook on their behalf. With the completion of his final mission on August 16, 1960, Kittinger received a cable from NASA. It read, in part: “Good show, Joe, the news of your continued penetrations of the space environment are most encouraging.” It was signed “Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, Shepard, Slayton”—the seven men who would make history over the next few years as the United States started sending astronauts into space.

“Nobody had ever been outside of a pressurized cabin at anything approaching 100,000 feet,” Kittinger later said. “We showed NASA that a spacewalk was possible.”

Down to Earth

For a brief period, Kittinger’s name was known worldwide. Life and National Geographic published cover stories about him, illustrated with spectacular photos of his record-setting third jump. He was interviewed on the CBS evening news by Walter Cronkite, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and shook hands with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who presented him with the annual Harmon Trophy for being the world’s outstanding aeronaut of 1959.

Kittinger also made headlines in 1962 with Project Stargazer. He went up in a balloon again, this time with naval astronomer William White, to test a telescope above the Earth’s atmosphere. The clarity of the images taken at 82,000 feet anticipated the future of space-based astronomy, including the Hubble and Webb space telescopes.

But the accomplishments of Kittinger and the other aeronauts would soon be eclipsed by the feats of NASA’s astronauts and the unfolding drama of the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Kittinger went back to being a fighter pilot, and he flew 483 combat missions in Vietnam. On May 22, 1972, his F-4D Phantom jet was shot down, and he spent 11 months in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, which POWs referred to as the Hanoi Hilton.

After his balloon flights, Kittinger (at Vance Air Force Base in 2006) flew F-4s in Vietnam.

Kittinger’s days as an aeronaut, however, weren’t completely over. In 1984, six years after retiring from the Air Force as a colonel, he became the first person to complete a solo balloon flight across the Atlantic.

For more than 50 years, Kittinger held the records for highest skydive and balloon ascension. That record was finally broken in 2012 by Swiss balloonist Felix Baumgartner. Kittinger mentored Baumgartner and handled communications with his balloon capsule, helping him leap into the record books from an altitude of 128,100 feet. Two years later, computer scientist Alan Eustace eclipsed Baumgartner’s record with a jump from 135,889 feet.

Throughout his life, Kittinger was the recipient of multiple honors, including the National Air and Space Museum’s 2008 trophy for lifetime achievement. “Of all the awards he won, he loved that one most,” says Crouch, who had nominated his friend.

The celebrated fighter pilot, test pilot, aeronaut, and adventurer died last year at age 94. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

On July 25, 2012, Felix Baumgartner jumped from an altitude of 18 miles during a test flight for Red Bull Stratos. Kittinger was a mission adviser.

Free Fall

As Kittinger stepped from the gondola on that historic day in 1960, he felt nothing—no wind hitting his pressure suit or whistling past his helmet. At 102,800 feet, there is virtually no atmosphere to cause a sensation of falling. There are no reference points either. “There’s no way you can visualize the speed,” he later said. “There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception…. You know you are going very fast, but you don’t feel it. You don’t have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.”

Below him, Kittinger could make out clouds above the landing site near Holloman Air Force Base in the New Mexico desert. He rolled over on his back and was startled by the scene of a stark white balloon against a totally black sky, even though he was bathed in morning sunlight.

Kittinger rolled over again. At 96,000 feet, a six-foot stabilization canopy popped out of his parachute pack, providing him with the steadiness he needed to avoid the dreaded flat spin. Kittinger could see the clouds getting closer as he continued his descent. This was the first time he’d entered clouds from such a height and he had to remind himself that the objects he saw rushing up at him were vapor, not solid.

At about 17,000 feet, his main chute deployed with a jolt, arresting Kittinger’s record freefall at four minutes, 38 seconds. He was blanketed by clouds and could see neither ground below him nor space above him. When he passed free of the clouds at 15,000 feet, he spotted two rescue helicopters hovering nearby.

A few moments later, Kittinger hit the ground— nearly 14 minutes after his bailout. It was the hardest landing he had ever experienced but he was unharmed. As the recovery team removed his helmet, Kittinger felt a rush of fresh air for the first time in several hours. He looked at his hand and saw it was still swollen. Three hours later, it would return to normal.

Relaxed and elated, Kittinger smiled at the Air Force doctors and technicians attending to him on the ground. “I’m very glad to be back with you all,” he told them.

Dave Kindy writes about aviation, space, military history, and other topics. His article about the history of aviation checklists appeared in the Winter 2023 issue.


This article is from the Spring issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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