The Legend

“I could see for 450 miles and up to where the sky is black,” Joe Kittinger recalls of his mission in August 1960. “It's beautiful but you know right outside your suit there's vacuum and, without protection, you're dead.”

That experience would have been vital to Baumgartner on his jump as Kittinger, whose records Baumgartner set out to beat, coolly guided the Austrian back to earth from Mission Control, a constant presence in his ear piece and in the live broadcast of the jump.

Kittinger, born in Florida in 1928, was a fighter pilot in the US Air Force when he was recruited to help test parachute systems. During his ascent to 20 miles above earth, a year before Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter into orbit, the seal of his right glove failed and his hand began to expand. “It swelled up to twice the normal size,” he recalls. “But I knew that if I told the people on the ground they'd abort, so I put it out of my mind.”

In freefall for four and a half minutes, Kittinger fell at speeds up to 714 mph, exceeding the speed of sound. He experienced temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit. Kittinger opened his parachute at 18,000 feet and landed safely in the New Mexico desert after a 13 minute 45 second descent. Project Excelsior successfully proved the new parachute system, the Beaupre Multi-Stage Parachute, would solve the problem of high altitude escape by crewmen. In December 1962, under Project Star Gazer, Kittiger piloted a balloon into the upper atmosphere accompanied by U.S. Navy civilian astronomer to use a high powered telescope to view regions of deep space. They stay aloft for 18.5 hours above the skies of southwestern New Mexico.Kittinger also volunteered for three combat tours in Vietnam and served as commander of the famous 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4s. After shooting down a MiG-21 in aerial combat, he himself was shot down on May 11, 1972 and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war. Kittinger subsequently continued his career and retired as a colonel in 1978.After retiring, Kittinger remained active in ballooning. In 1984, at age 56, he traveled more than 3,500 miles at altitudes between 10,000 and 17,000 feet, crash-landing in northern Italy, setting a record for the longest solo balloon flight, both in time and distance.He has received numerous awards for solo transatlantic balloon flights, and he is the author of several articles about his 1960 leap for various publications, including the "The Long, Lonely Leap." Kittinger is also the subject of a new Naval Institute book "The Pre-Astronauts."


Joe Kittinger, for more than 45 years, has made contributions of significant value to aeronautics as a space pioneer, test pilot, combat aviator, and world record holder in helium balloons.

  • 1957: - Project Man-hight 76,000 feet
  • 1960: - Project Excelsior 102,800 - parachuted back to earth breaking the speed of sound in freefall
  • 1983: - 2,001 miles solo in 1,000 meter balloon
  • 1984: - Crossed Atlantic Ocean solo by gas balloonAwards: Harmon Trophy Retired Gordon Bennett Trophy Elder Statesman of Aviation