The Right Stuff
When one investigates the history of human space flight, you need to start from the beginning.  It required men and women with the right stuff, intestinal fortitude, common sense, great intelligence and the ability to make the correct snap decision in an instant.  These decisions meant the difference between life and death.  Here is the story of one such pioneer in the great adventure of human space flight. 

Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger Jr.  (USAF-Ret.)


Joseph Kittinger was born on July 27, 1928, and grew up near Orlando, Florida.  His interest in aviation began at an early age.  As a youth, he persuaded local pilots to give him rides in their planes and was flying solo in a Piper Cub by age 17.  Kittinger attended the University of Florida for two years, then left to enlist in the United States Air Force in 1949 as an aviation cadet and earned his wings.  He served as a NATO test pilot in Germany until 1953, when he was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Missile Development Center at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.  During his tenure at Holloman, Capt. Kittinger flew experimental jet fighters and participated in aerospace medical research.


In 1959, Colonel John Paul Stapp for the Man High Project recruited Capt. Kittinger to conduct research in high-altitude balloon flights in a pressurized gondola to study cosmic rays and to determine if humans were physically and psychologically capable of extended travel at space-like altitudes (above 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere).  Kittinger made the first Man High ascent June 2, 1957, remaining aloft for almost seven hours and climbing to 96,000' (18.18 miles)


In 1958, Kittinger moved to the Escape Section of the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright Air Development Center's Aero Medical Laboratory.  Then he joined Project Excelsior, which investigated the use of parachutes for escape from a space capsule or high altitude planes.  At the time, no one knew if a pilot could survive jumping back to Earth from the edge of space.


On November 16, 1959, Kittinger piloted Excelsior I to 76,000' (14.39 miles) and jumped, free falling to Earth.  This jump almost cost him his life.  His small stabilization parachute, which served to stabilize him and prevent him from going into a fatal "flat-spin," opened two seconds after he jumped, instead of the sixteen seconds required, catching Kittinger around the neck and causing him to spin uncontrollably.  He lost consciousness as he tumbled to Earth at 120 Revolutions Per Minute.  His main parachute deployed at 10,000’ and slowed his decent and saved his life.


Never one to give up, he continued with the project and the flight of the Excelsior II, which took place on December 11, 1959.  The balloon climbed to 74,700' (14.15 miles) before Kittinger jumped from his gondola, setting a free-fall record of 55,000 (10.42 miles) before deploying his main parachute.


On August 16, 1960, on board Excelsior III, Kittinger made history.  He ascended in a helium-filled balloon and an open gondola to a height of 102,800' (19.47 miles).  Protected against sub-zero temperatures by layers of clothes and a pressure suit, he experienced temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit.  His ascent to 19.47 miles above the surface of the Earth took one hour and thirty-one minutes.  Upon reaching this lofty height, he remained in the open gondola for eleven minutes, checked the instruments, started the camera rolling, walked to the ledge of the gondola where a plaque stated "The Highest Step In The World,” said a prayer for safe return, and "JUMPED".  He endured a free-fall for over 4.5 minutes and falling at 714 miles per hour towards Earth.  Kittinger is the only human in history to exceed the speed of sound without benefit of plane or rocket.


Colonel Kittinger later was involved in Project Stargazer.  On December 13-14, 1962, Kittinger and Astronomer William C. White rose to an altitude of 82,200' (15.57 miles) above the surface of the Earth in a specially constructed gondola, equipped with a telescope in order to conduct astrophotography and visual observations of the planets and stars.  From this vantage point, they were free from most of the turbulence in Earth's atmosphere.  They were paving the way for space telescopes to be deployed at a later date.  Projects Man High, Excelsior and Stargazer, provided NASA with valuable scientific information and all of this testing led to the Mercury program.  Colonel Kittinger is truly a space pioneer.


Not one to stay at rest for long, he sought and received combat assignment in Vietnam. He was commander of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron and flew 483 missions in jets.  He engaged enemy aircraft and shot down a Soviet Mig-21.  Several moths later in a dogfight, he was shot down, captured, and spent eleven months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.  Col. Kittinger’s faith in God and prayer saw him through this terrible internment. 


Colonel Kittinger retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1978, began ballooning around the country, and entered balloon competitions.  Winning many races and still driven, he set sail from Caribou, Maine, on September 14, 1984, in a helium balloon, the Rosie O'Grady, and floated across the Atlantic Ocean and Europe and landed in Cairo Montenotte, Italy, on September 18, 1984.  He covered a distance of 3,543 miles on this voyage.


Colonel Kittinger has piloted 78 different types of aircraft and has logged over eleven thousand hours of flight (1.26 years).  He has received numerous military and civilian awards and decorations.  One award, the Harmon Trophy, was presented to Colonel Kittinger by then president Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Colonel Joseph Kittinger Jr. is truly a unique individual; he has a true pioneering spirit, intestinal fortitude, and a go-at-them attitude.  A man who opened the portal to space is still a vital part of the aviation community