Joseph Kittinger, Jr.

Joseph Kittinger, Jr. is best known for his high-altitude balloon flights and parachute jumps that he made while heading the U.S. Air Force's "Project Excelsior" in the 1950s. The project's goal was to solve the problems of high-altitude bailout. It used a high-altitude balloon with an open gondola to travel to the edge of space, with the pilot parachuting from the gondola to the ground.

On November 16, 1959, Kittinger piloted Excelsior I to 76,000 feet (23,165 meters) and returned to Earth by jumping, free falling, and parachuting to the desert floor in New Mexico. He followed this with the flight of Excelsior II, launched on December 11, 1959. This balloon climbed to 74,700 feet (22,769 meters) before Kittinger jumped from his gondola.

Joseph Kittinger's high-altitude jump, 1960.

The third flight, on August 16, 1960, broke records. The Excelsior III climbed to 102,800 feet (31,333 meters), and on his descent, Kittinger freefell at speeds up to 614 miles per hour, approaching the speed of sound without the protection of an aircraft or space vehicle and experiencing temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius). He was in freefall for 4.5 minutes before he opened his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,486 meters). For his work on this project, on October 3, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Kittinger the C.B Harmon Trophy, and he also received an oak leaf cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross, the J.J. Jeffries Award, the Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, and the Wingfoot Lighter-Than-Air Society Achievement Award.

Kittinger also participated in "Project Stargazer," a balloon astronomy experiment in December 1962, along with astronomer William C. White. The two men rose to an altitude of 82,200 feet (25,055 meters) in a balloon over Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico and hovered for 18.5 hours to check variations in the brightness of star images caused by the atmosphere.

Kittinger also served three combat tours in Vietnam and spent eleven months in captivity as a prisoner of war. He retired from the military in 1978.

Joseph Kittinger, Jr.

After his retirement, he continued working in aeronautics. He won the Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race four times during the 1980s and retired the trophy with three consecutive victories. In November 1983, Kittinger established a new world record by flying a 35,300 cubic-foot (1,000 cubic-meter) helium balloon from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Franklinville, New York, covering 2,001 miles (3,220 kilometres) in 72 hours. He expended all available ballast during this trip and landed in only his underwear.

In September 1984, Kittinger set another record by flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean. He flew the 105,944-cubic-foot (3,000 cubic meter) helium-filled Rosie O'Grady from Presque Island, Maine to the Italian Riviera near Savona, Italy. His trip covered 3,535 miles (5,690 kilometres) in 86 hours.

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