The high point of Kittinger’s career.
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.