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)
As new jet aircraft flew higher and faster in the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force became increasingly concerned with the hazards faced by flight crews ejecting from high-performance aircraft. In addition, the emerging space age introduced the problem of how to provide astronauts with a safe method of escape while within the atmosphere. Without proper stabilization, a crewmember ejecting from an aerospace vehicle at high altitudes could enter a life-threatening flat spin of up to 200 rpm.
To study and solve these high-altitude escape problems, the USAF established Project Excelsior in 1958 with Capt. (later Col.) Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. as the test director. Mr. Francis Beaupre, a technician working on the Excelsior project at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, devised a parachute system that would safely enable pilots to eject from high altitudes. His system, the "Beaupre Multi-Stage Parachute," consisted of a stabilizer parachute that would prevent uncontrolled spinning and tumbling at high altitudes. A timing and altitude system automatically deployed both the stabilizing and main parachutes at the appropriate moments to ensure the safe and controlled descent of the pilot or astronaut.
As Project Excelsior did not have the resources to use high-performance aircraft to test the new escape system, the skilled staff at Wright-Patterson AFB designed and built a balloon gondola to carry the pilot to the desired altitudes for the tests. The balloon held nearly 3 million cubic feet of helium to lift the open gondola high into the stratosphere. Capt. Kittinger made three high-altitude parachute jumps from the gondola using the Beaupre-designed parachute system. On Nov. 16, 1959, Kittinger made the first jump from Excelsior I at an altitude of 76,400 feet. During Excelsior II, the second test on Dec. 11, 1959, Kittinger jumped from an altitude of 74,700 feet. On the third and last jump in Excelsior III on Aug. 16, 1960, Kittinger jumped from a then-record height of 102,800 feet, almost 20 miles above the earth. With only the small stabilizing chute deployed, Kittinger fell for 4 minutes, 36 seconds. He experienced temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit and a maximum speed of 614 miles per hour. The 28-foot main parachute did not open until Kittinger reached the much thicker atmosphere at 17,500 feet. After a 13 minute, 45 second descent, Kittinger safely landed in the New Mexico desert. Project Excelsior successfully proved the new parachute system would solve the problem of high-altitude escape by crewmen.
Kittinger's record jump lasted for nearly 52 years. On Oct. 14, 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner broke the world record for the highest skydive when he jumped from a balloon at an altitude of 128,097 feet -- or just over 24 miles. Reaching a top speed of 833 mph, Baumgartner exceed the speed of sound (which is 661 mph at 70,000 feet) during his descent back to earth. Kittinger served as a team advisor to Baumgartner and acted as the capsule communicator during the historic skydive. Afterward, Kittinger said "Records are made to be broken ... and a better champion could not have been found than Felix Baumgartner."