The fastest speed ever reached by an unaided human is just under the speed of sound, achieved under the name Project Excelsior. In 1959 and 1960 The United Stated Air Force ran a series of 3 parachute jumps. Jumps so high that they bordered on space, the highest parachute jumps to have ever been attempted. The 3 jumps were undertaken by a Captain Joseph Kittinger and the records he set still stand today.
Project Excelsior was started in the 1950’s with the lofty ambitions of tackling the threats of the new altitudes being reached by military jets. Many kilometres up, ejecting was not safe. Test dummies released at those heights would spin uncontrollably as they descended, exerting lethal forces on their bodies. Additionally pilot’s suits weren’t designed for the extremes of cold faced in the upper atmosphere. Were an incident to occur up there, a pilot would literally catch their death of cold.
Under Project Excelsior a multi-stage parachute was designed to prevent the spinning. Then a special suit that could combat both extreme pressure and the cold was made. Combined, the whole ensemble weighed as much as an entire person, but tweaking could wait. With the test data from dummies, a prototype and one willing test subject, the first jump was made. Excelsior I.
16 November 1959, Kittinger was sent up in an open gondola attached to a vast balloon. He went up with the suit, parachutes, a heart monitor and a couple of water bottles. Slowly he drifted up to the test height of 23 kilometres. His altimeter told him to go, and Kittinger made to jump – there were difficulties. The water bottles had frozen and expanded. Whilst leaving the gondola he brushed against one and set off the parachute deployment timer.
The moment he was outside his first parachute stage deployed. At those low speeds it fell with him. The main parachute tangled around his body,ensnaring him while cords were wrapping around his neck. Without the parachutes working properly he fell into the death spin. The forces from his rotation restricted blood flow and he lapsed into unconsciousness. At the worst point his extremities were subjected to 22 times the force of gravity.
3,400 metres above earth, the reserve parachute opened out and he landed safely. Excelsior I was a success, he had survived – if barely. He was not deterred.
11 December 1959, the Excelsior II flight went without a hitch, the bottles were moved and the parachute activation changed. Once again 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 break some records.
05:29, 16 August 1960. A stratospheric balloon with Kittinger in tow launched from an abandoned Mexican airstrip; for 1 hour and 43 minutes it rose, slowly expanding until the mark was reached. 31 kilometres, on the cusp of space. 99.2% of the worlds atmosphere lay beneath him as he approached the edge of the open door. Problems were still present though. The pressure in the right glove had failed, causing his hand to swell to twice its normal size. The pain was excruciating but he only reported the error when 31 kilometres above the surface, so that he wouldn’t be forced to abort the mission.
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 back to watch the silver balloon rise without him into the sky. At that altitude the sky was the inky black of space. He felt nothing; so thin was the atmosphere that there was no sound or sensation 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 main 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 his fall it was completely silent, the pain in his hand and the sound of his heartbeat were his only company. Then came the sound of falling, rearing up from silence into a full-bodied roar. The air pushed at his body and he felt tugs from rippling the fabric of the parachutes.
During the fall he accelerated to a phenomenal 1006 km/h, within a hair of the speed of sound, the world record for unassisted speed. He began to choke. The sheer speed was pushing his helmet up against his neck. Panic was not an option, he stayed resolutely calm and the sensation ebbed away until the next phase arrived. 6 kilometres up he approached a layer of solid cloud. He instinctively drew in his legs and fell through quickly. 4 minutes and 36 seconds in he had fallen 26 kilometres, finally the air was thick enough for the main parachute to deploy.
For the next 9 minutes and 9 seconds he descended. Project Excelsior was a success, it produced technology that would go on to save lives and further understanding of high-altitudes. It also gave the man landing in the New Mexico Desert a few world records. As a direct result of the project, Captain Joseph W. Kittinger was promoted to Colonel and presented with the Harmon Trophy, an award given to him by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A high honour indeed.