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Watch Out For That Last Step

On Aug 16, 1960, a redheaded Air Force test pilot by the name of Joseph Kittinger took a *very* long step and landed squarely in the record book.On Aug 16, 1960, a redheaded Air Force test pilot by the name of Joseph Kittinger took a *very* long step and landed squarely in the record book.

As a US Air Force Captain assigned to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, Kittinger was overseeing (and participating in) Project Excelsior, which, through high altitude balloon flights, was to test escape equipment for the military and the fledgling space program. He had previously been part of Operation Man High, which researched the effects of high altitude on the human body through the method of stratospheric balloon flights. Man High flights were done under the direction of Col. (Dr.) John P. Stapp, himself famous for volunteering as a test subject during high-G testing on rocket sleds.

After several flights of Man High with balloonists Lt. Clifton McClure and Captain David Simons, Kittinger went on to fly all three Excelsior flights on his own. Discarding the cylindrical gondola of Man High, Kittinger used an open gondola, which looked like the basket atop a present-day cherry picker. Painted on the sill below the cutout doorway was the simple phrase, 'This Is The Highest Step In The World.'

World’s “Tallest” Man
Launching from outside Tularosa, New Mexico at 5:29 in the morning, Kittinger shot spaceward aboard the bare framework that was his platform at the base of Excelsior III. An hour and thirty-one minutes later, he stood looking down on the world from an altitude of 102,800 feet and it was time to return -- without the balloon.

Stepping away from his open gondola, Kittinger fell ... and fell some more. He continued falling for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, and over 84,000 feet. He was entirely alone, protected from the elements only by his pressure suit and trailing but a small stabilizing parachute to steady his descent. As he exited the balloon, a camera on a timer recorded his departure. The camera was later recovered and contained the hauntingly beautiful image of a man isolated in the thin air far, far above the clouds.

World’s Fastest Man
During his “trip” Earthward, Kittinger’s travels through the rarefied air of near space, along with gravity, caused him to set another record: He became the first man to exceed Mach 1 in free-fall. Kittinger -- himself -- reached a speed of 714 mph.

As he hit 17,500 feet, his main parachute deployed. The ride beneath that nylon canopy lasted more than eight minutes and ended with a safe touchdown inside the White Sand Missile Range, New Mexico.

Kittinger went on flying in the Air Force and served *three* tours in Vietnam -- the last tour ended with a stay as a POW in the 'Hanoi Hilton' prison camp. Years later, he was still flying and still a record setter. Kittinger flew the first solo Trans-Atlantic balloon flight in September of 1984, flying from Maine to Italy in the “Rosie O'Grady's Balloon of Peace.”

Author’s note:
Some contend that as a research flight, rather than a record attempt, Excelsior III and Kittinger's 'last step' did not meet FAI standards and is therefore not an official record.

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About This Author:
Brian Nicklas is a researcher and the Asst. Reference Chief in the Archives Division of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. As a freelance aerospace writer and photographer he has covered the space program to military aviation, and has flight experience in gliders to blimps. He is an alumnus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach in Aeronautical Studies and was recently named a Contributing Editor to Air&Space/Smithsonian Magazine. As an unlicensed pilot, he flies in whatever he can when not building airplane models.
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