Project Stargazer was a balloon astronomy experiment where Col. Kittinger and Astronomer William C. White hovered for 18.5 hours to check variations in brightness of star images. (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)
Col. Joseph Kittinger entered military service in March 1949 as an aviation cadet and became commissioned a second lieutenant in March 1950. Following a tour with the 86th Fighter Bomber Wing in Germany, he was assigned the Air Force Missile Development Center at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.
In 1957 he made the first flight of the Manhigh program, setting a balloon altitude record of nearly 97,000 feet while wearing a full pressure suit inside a tiny sealed capsule. Appointed Test Director of Project Excelsior, which tested man's ability to survive high altitude bailouts, he made his most significant jump on Aug. 16, 1960, when he stepped from a balloon-supported gondola at the altitude of 102,800 feet. In freefall for 4.5 minutes at speeds up to 614 mph and temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit, Col. Kittinger opened his parachute at 18,000 feet. The jump set records that still stand today: the highest ascent in a balloon, the highest parachute jump, the longest freefall, and the fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere.
Project Stargazer was a balloon astronomy experiment where he and Astronomer William C. White hovered for 18.5 hours to check variations in brightness of star images.
Col. Kittinger volunteered for three combat tours in Vietnam and served as commander of the famous 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4s. He downed a MiG-21 before he himself was shot down on May 11, 1972, after which he spent 11 months in captivity as a prisoner of war.
He retired as a colonel in 1978. He won the Gordon-Bennett balloon races in 1982, 1984 and 1985 before accomplishing his most ambitious feat, a solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic. Living in Orlando, Fla., he is Vice President of Flight Operations for Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus.