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.
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
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