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  • Writer's pictureAeryn Avilla

The Man Who Fell to Earth: Joseph Kittinger & Project Excelsior

Updated: Sep 3

The U.S. Air Force's Project Excelsior tested a multi-stage parachute system through a series of high-altitude jumps made by Captain Joseph Kittinger in 1959 and 1960. Meaning "ever upward", the project pioneered aviation safety and made breakthroughs in aerospace medicine that are still relevant more than sixty years later.

Captain Joseph Kittinger's Excelsior III balloon jump

Captain Joseph Kittinger jumps from 102,800 feet (31,333 m) during Excelsior III in 1960 (USAF)

As aircraft began flying higher and faster following World War II, the need for more advanced safety equipment was prevalent. If a pilot ejected from his aircraft at a high altitude and deployed his parachute too soon, he could be exposed to low temperatures for a prolonged amount of time, potentially causing hypothermia. If he free-fell to a lower altitude before deploying his chute, he risked going into a flat spin, which is when the blood of the jumper rushes to his head and feet and he spins out of control. This could be fatal. a

Francis Beaupre was technician at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio who devised a multi-stage parachute system with a fully automatic deployment sequence. First, a small pilot chute would deploy once the occupant reached adequate airspeed. If it deployed too early, insufficient dynamic pressure in the thin atmosphere would cause it to flop around and potentially wrap around the jumper, rendering it useless. Next, a 6 foot (2 m) diameter drogue chute would deploy to prevent uncontrolled spinning. Last, a 28 foot (8.5 m) diameter main chute would deploy around 18,000 feet (5.5 km).

Operation High Dive dummy and gondola
Operation High Dive dummy and gondola (USAF)

Operation High Dive, based out of Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico, began in March 1953 and used dummies to observe how the human body handles unstabilized free-falls at different altitudes. For the first two months, 28 dummy drops were carried out from a C-97 Stratofreighter at 30,000 feet (9.14 km). Beginning in June 1954, high altitude polyethylene balloons carried the dummies to 90,300 feet (27.5 km). The balloons stood 220 feet (61 m) tall and contained nearly 3 million cubic feet (85,000 cubic meters) of helium, enough to hoist an open gondola and dummy into the stratosphere. According to, the most extreme spin occurred on February 8, 1956 on drop #53 of Operation High Dive when the dummy reached 200 revolutions per minute (about 3.3 revolutions per second) after being dropped from 89,000 feet (27.1 km) (Kennedy). Later dummies wore stabilization parachutes.

Project Manhigh was a series of three manned balloon flights to the very edge of space and is considered to be the first step taken towards manned spaceflight. While the concurrent Operation High Dive developed the multi-stage parachute, Manhigh answered questions about the human body's performance in the space environment and what equipment would be necessary for sending men into space. Manhigh I took place on June 2, 1957 and was flown by Captain Joseph Kittinger. Launching from Fleming Field Airport in St. Paul, Minnesota, his pill-shaped gondola reached an altitude of 95,000 feet (29 km). Manhigh II, which occurred on August 19, was flown by Major David Simons and reached a record-setting altitude of 101,516 feet (31 km). Manhigh III, despite a string of bad luck, took place on October 8, 1958 and was flown by Lieutenant Clifton McClure to an altitude of 100,000 feet (30.5 km). Project Manhigh also established pilot requirements for high-altitude flights, which included psychological, stress, and physical tests. These criteria were later used to select the world's first astronauts, those of the Air Force's Man In Space Soonest program, and NASA's Mercury astronauts.

Captain Joseph Kittinger inside the Manhigh I balloon gondola

Kittinger inside the Manhigh I gondola (USAF)

Project Excelsior was the manned continuation of Operation High Dive and was sponsored by the Aero Medical Laboratory in Ohio commanded by Colonel John P. Stapp, a pioneer in aerospace medicine specializing in the effects of acceleration forces on the human body. He recruited Kittinger as test director for the project due to his experience with Project Manhigh. In 1956 Winzen Research, Inc., developed the Sky-Car system for low-altitude scientific research and ballooning instruction. The gondola had a cylindrical frame 40 inches (1 m) tall and 56 inches (1.4 m) in diameter. It was modified to be open-air for Excelsior.

To kick off Project Excelsior, 140 dummy tests with the Beaupre parachute system took place at altitudes of up to 100,000 feet (30.5 km). Kittinger performed three live jumps from a C-130 Hercules at 28,000 feet. b The landing area was the White Sands Missile Range.

Flying over New Mexico, the balloon gondola carried Kittinger to an altitude of more than 20 miles (32.2 km) and above more than 99% of Earth's atmosphere. He wore an Air Force MC-3 partial pressure suit manufactured by David Clark, the same manufacturers of the Gemini space suit. The pressure suit was covered by insulated winter flying coveralls to protect Kittinger from the extreme cold temperatures of high altitude. If either the suit or his helmet failed, the lack of oxygen would render him unconscious in 10 to 12 seconds and kill him in 2 to 3 minutes. b With the additional oxygen box, instruments, and cameras, he weighed a total of 320 pounds.

Museum display of Kittinger's Project Excelsior suit

Mannequin wearing Kittinger's suit (or possibly replica) at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio (USAF/Ken LaRock)

Excelsior I took place on November 16, 1959 and launched from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Kittinger was supposed to jump at 60,000 feet (18.3 km), but delays caused him to jump at 76,400 feet (23.3 km). At this altitude, he experienced temperatures of —104°F (—75.5°C). There was no shade over the opening of the gondola so when sunlight streamed in, it reflected off the instrument panel, making it unreadable. Kittinger's helmet visor also fogged over, impairing his vision. He had to pull himself free from his seat, which held a grip on his instrument pack. During his jump, the pilot chute deployed too soon— only 2.5 seconds after he left the gondola— catching him around the neck due to a lack of "sufficient airspeed to create adequate dynamic pressure" (Kennedy). This caused him to spin at 120 revolutions per minute and black out shortly after. He regained consciousness at 10,000 feet (3.1 km) when his emergency chute deployed.

Joseph Kittinger inside the Excelsior III balloon gondola

Kittinger inside the Excelsior III gondola (USAF)

Excelsior II took place on December 11, 1959 and was flawless. Kittinger jumped at an altitude of 74,400 feet (22.7 km) and the pilot chute deployed 14 seconds later. The main chute of the Beaupre system deployed at 18,000 feet (5.5 km) as planned. The massive success of this jump prompted the third and most famous, Excelsior III.

Kittinger during Excelsior II's free-fall

Kittinger's free-fall during Excelsior II (USAF)

Excelsior III took place on August 16, 1960 and launched from Tularosa, New Mexico. The gondola was adorned with two placards for its third and final flight. The first was a license plate from Oregon Kittinger's son in Ohio cut out of a cereal box. The second was a sign that read, "This is the highest step in the world". During ascent, the pressure seal on his right glove failed and his hand swelled to nearly twice its normal size. An hour and a half after liftoff, Kittinger arrived at the desired altitude of 102,800 feet (31.3 km), breaking the previous manned balloon altitude record of 101,516 feet (30.9 km) [1]. Upon stepping out of the gondola, Kittinger free-fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, setting a world record for the longest free-fall that stood unbroken for decades. His top speed, which he reached at 90,000 feet (27.4 km), was 625.2 miles per hour (1,006.2 km/h), or 4/5ths the speed of sound. He fell through clouds for the first time during Project Excelsior at 21,000 feet (6.4 km) and his main chute opened at 17,500 feet (5.3 km). Kittinger landed on the shores of Lake Lucero 13 minutes and 45 seconds after stepping out of the gondola and was recovered uninjured except for a severe bruise on his leg. The Excelsior III jump set four Air Force records:

  1. Highest manned balloon altitude

  2. Highest jump

  3. Longest free-fall

  4. Fastest speed traveled by a human in the atmosphere (unassisted by any vehicle)

Kittinger next to his Excelsior III gondola

"This is the highest step in the world" — Kittinger stands next to his Excelsior III gondola (USAF)

Project Excelsior demonstrated the reliability of Beaupre's multi-stage parachute system and proved it was possible for pilots to survive ejecting at high altitudes. Kittinger's free-fall record was broken by Felix Baumgartner in 2012 during the Red Bull Stratos project, on which Kittinger served as advisor.

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