In 1959 and 1960 the United States Air Force ran Project Excelsior, a series of 3 extreme altitude parachute jumps. These 3 jumps were undertaken by Captain Joseph Kittinger and set the record for the fastest speed reached by a human without a vehicle and the worlds highest parachute jump at 31 kilometres above sea level. Both records still stand.
In the 1950’s, military jets were reaching ever higher into the atmosphere and there were concerns about safety when ejecting at high altitudes. Tests with dummies showed that pilots at high altitudes would uncontrollably spin with a potentially fatal speed. A new special multi-stage parachute was designed to stop the spinning. Then there was another problem, the chill.
At higher altitudes temperatures reach as low as -70°C, this was less than healthy for anyone; so a special pressure suit was designed to combat both the extreme pressure changes and the low temperatures. It was a bit on the bulky side, combined with the new parachutes the whole ensemble weighed as much as Captain Kittinger. Then came the first extreme altitude jump, Excelsior I.
16 November 1959, Kittinger was sent up in an open gondola attached to a vast balloon. With the suit, parachutes, a heart monitor and a couple of water bottles. At the predetermined height of 23 kilometres, Kittinger made to jump – there were difficulties. The water bottles had frozen and expanded, whilst edging out he accidentally set off the timer for parachute deployment. Almost immediately after jumping the pilot parachute deployed, his body did not have enough speed and the main parachute got tangled, and wrapped around his neck sending him into a dangerous spin and unconsciousness. His extremities were subjected to 22 times the force of gravity and he would have died were it not for modifications made to the parachutes , just for this very mission. At 3,400 metres the reserve parachute opened out and he landed safely. Excelsior I was a success, he had survived – if barely.
11 December 1959, the Excelsior II flight went without a hitch, the bottles were moved and the parachute activation changed. Captain Kittinger was released from 23 kilometres up and the parachutes ensured his safe landing. Bolstered by the success, plans were made for Excelsior III, where they would reach previously unattainable heights.
05:29, 16 August 1960, the stratospheric balloon with Kittinger in tow launched from an abandoned Mexican airstrip. The balloon rose constantly for 1 hour and 43 minutes and reached over 31 kilometres upwards, the very edge of space itself. Only 99.2% of the worlds atmosphere lay beneath him. The pressure in his right glove failed and his hand had swollen to twice its normal size, putting him in excruciating pain, in fear of being told to jump early he only reported it once he had reached the full height.
The temperature was -70°C and the earth spread out beneath him. A plaque underneath the gondola exit read as follows:
“This Is The Highest Step In The World”
He stepped off. He turned rightwards at first then turned onto his back to watch the silver balloon rise further into the sky. At this altitude the sky was now black, but no stars yet visible. During this he felt nothing, so thin was the atmosphere that there was no sound of air rushing past him, no force pushing on him as he fell. He was alone and weightless, there were no reference points. He felt as though he were suspended in space.
16 seconds in the pilot chute was deployed, then the stabilising parachute was released, he barely noticed. The two small parachutes only stopped him spinning, they certainly didn’t stop him falling. For 4 minutes of his fall it was completely silent, only the pain in his glove and the sound of his heartbeat. Finally after those 4 minutes the familiar falling sound rose from silence to a roar. The air pushing at his body and rippling the fabric of the parachutes.
During the fall he accelerated to a phenomenal 1006 km/h, reaching towards but not quite reaching the speed of sound. Suddenly the sensation of being choked, his helmet was rising, he tried not to panic and soon the sensation decreased. Then a new experience, at 6 kilometres up he approached a layer of solid cloud. He instinctively drew in his legs and fell through quickly. 4 minutes, 36 seconds in he had fallen 26 kilometres, finally the air was thick enough for the main parachute to deploy. For 9 minutes, 9 seconds. Project Excelsior was a success, it produced technology that would go on to save lives. It also gave the man landing in the New Mexico Desert a few world records. Captain Joseph W. Kittinger was promoted to Colonel and awarded the Harmon Trophy, an award given to him by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
- Joseph W. Kittinger and the Highest Step in the World – In-depth article about project Excelsior
- Video about Project Excelsior including Archive footage