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Excelsior Gondola

DAYTON, Ohio -- Excelsior Gondola on display in the Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

DAYTON, Ohio -- Excelsior Gondola on display in the Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

DAYTON, Ohio -- Excelsior Gondola on display in the Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

DAYTON, Ohio -- Excelsior Gondola on display in the Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

Front view of the Excelsior Gondola at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Front view of the Excelsior Gondola at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Side view of the Excelsior Gondola at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Side view of the Excelsior Gondola at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

An automatic camera captured Capt. (later Col.) Joseph Kittinger just as he stepped from the balloon-supported Excelsior Gondola on Aug. 16, 1960, at an altitude of 102,800 feet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

An automatic camera captured Capt. (later Col.) Joseph Kittinger just as he stepped from the balloon-supported Excelsior Gondola on Aug. 16, 1960, at an altitude of 102,800 feet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Beginning the ascent in the Excelsior III gondola. As the balloon rises into the upper atmosphere, the helium gas inside expands and fills out the envelope of the balloon.  The tests were carried out over the barren terrain of New Mexico. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Beginning the ascent in the Excelsior III gondola. As the balloon rises into the upper atmosphere, the helium gas inside expands and fills out the envelope of the balloon. The tests were carried out over the barren terrain of New Mexico. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Excelsior III ascent begins. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Excelsior III ascent begins. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Capt. Kittinger during the Excelsior III ascent. Strapped to him were oxygen bottles, instrumentation and the Beaupre Multi-Stage Parachute system. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Capt. Kittinger during the Excelsior III ascent. Strapped to him were oxygen bottles, instrumentation and the Beaupre Multi-Stage Parachute system. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Capt. Kittinger landing. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Capt. Kittinger landing. (U.S. Air Force photo)


Project Excelsior successfully tested parachutes to be used for escaping from aircraft at extremely high altitudes. U.S. Air Force Capt. Joseph Kittinger made three jumps from a balloon gondola in 1959-1960, the highest one from a record height of over 102,000 feet.

As aircraft like the X-15 began to reach the limits of the upper atmosphere, new escape equipment had to be developed. Problems bailing out at high speed and high altitude include cold, lack of oxygen and the tendency to enter a lethal fast spin during free-fall. The USAF developed new multi-stage parachutes -- with small, medium, then large parachutes deploying as the pilot fell -- that allowed safe descent from incredible heights.

The Excelsior balloon offered an ideal way to reach super-high altitude to test the parachutes. Kittinger’s highest jump took place in August 1960 over New Mexico. He stepped from the open gondola at 102,800 feet, more than 20 miles high and above more than 99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. He free-fell for four minutes and 37 seconds and reached a speed of 614 mph. Kittinger’s multi-stage parachute worked perfectly, and it took him more than 13 minutes to reach the ground.

The balloon gondola on display is a replica of the Excelsior gondola, and the gear on the mannequin is representative of the equipment Kittinger wore.

TECHNICAL NOTES:
Parachute:
3-stage parachute designed by Francis F. Beaupre (18-in diameter pilot parachute deploying 16 seconds after jump, followed by 6-foot stabilization parachute at 96,000 feet, then 28-foot main parachute at 14,000 feet), with emergency reserve parachute
Pilot gear: David Clark MC-3 partial pressure suit with layers of insulating and electrically-heated garments plus biomedical sensors

Click here to return to the Space Gallery.

 

Find Out More
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Videos
Yesterday's Air Force: Space Jump (Air Force TV) (00:03:08)
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Lectures
Col. (Ret.) Joseph Kittinger Jr.: "The Sky is My Office" (01:08:34)
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