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Free-Fall from Near Space

Article #110 • Written by Daniel Lew

You have probably heard about - or done - some form of extreme free-fall, be it sky diving, bungee jumping, or base jumping. But how many people can claim to skydive from an altitude that was almost out of the atmosphere? Joseph Kittinger can, and he still holds a number of records due to one particular jump: the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest free-fall, and fastest speed by man through the atmosphere.

Through his participation in the government run Project Man High, Project Excelsior, and Project Stargazer, Joseph Kittinger not only broke many human aerial records, but also managed to pioneer early space exploration research. Due to his willingness to fly in a balloon beyond most of the atmosphere, Kittinger gathered much valuable data about how humans react to being so incredibly high.

In 1949, Kittinger joined the U.S. Air Force as an aviation cadet and earned his wings. He quickly got into experimental aviation, flying as a NATO test pilot in Germany until 1953, when he was reassigned to the U.S. In 1955 Kittinger flew at 632 mph in John Paul Stapp's rocket-sled experiment, testing the effects of gravitational stress on the human body.

The skill of Kittinger's flying led Stapp to recruit him for Project Man High, which used high-altitude balloons to study cosmic rays and determine if human beings were capable of going into space. On June 2, 1957, Kittinger made his first high-altitude ascent in a balloon - it lasted almost seven hours and took him to an altitude 96,760 feet.

After this flight, Kittinger was transferred to Project Excelsior (meaning "ever upward"). For this project, those who went up would take the fastest route down - by jumping out of the balloon in a pressurized suit. Kittinger's first jump, which occurred on November 16, 1959, was a near disaster. After jumping from an altitude of 76,000, Kittinger's small parachute malfunctioned, opening early and catching Kittinger around the neck, causing him to spiral down towards Earth and lose consciousness. Luckily, his emergency automatic parachute activated at 10,000 feet, saving his life. Despite this near-death experience, Kittinger still flew a few more Project Excelsior missions. A month after the first flight, he successfully jumped from 74,700 feet and set a record for free-fall length (55,500 feet).

On August 16, 1960, Kittinger made his most famous free-fall. In this flight, he made it up to an altitude of 102,800 feet, breaking a previous record made by David Simons during Project Man High. He stayed at this altitude for about 12 minutes, which must have been very unpleasant - not only was it as cold as 94 minus Fahrenheit, but he had a severe pain in his right hand from a malfunctioning pressurized glove. Then, he jumped. He fell for almost five minutes before reaching a safe altitude to open his main parachutes and float down to the ground. In this time, he went as fast as 614 MPH - not quite breaking the sound barrier, as some claimed he had, but still achieving the fastest speed by man through the atmosphere.

Kittinger's high-flying career was not over after this record-breaking fall. In 1962, as a part of Project Stargazer, he spent over eighteen hours at an altitude of 82,200 feet, performing more research into the affects of the atmosphere on telescopes and the long-term effects of high-altitude environments on the human body. This was to be his last high-altitude balloon flight.

Later on in life, Kittinger went on to fly in the Vietnam war, performing 483 missions before being shot down and held as a prisoner of war for almost a year. After he came back to the U.S., he proceeded to balloon across the country and entered into many ballooning contests. In 1983 he set a record for flying a balloon from Las Vegas to New York in under 72 hours. A year later became the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon, setting a record for the longest solo balloon flight at 83 hours and 40 minutes. To this day, Kittinger is still involved with flight as an aviation consultant and sometimes barnstormer.

Update 14 October 2012: Today Felix Baumgartner broke Kittinger's record by free-falling from 39 kilometres up via helium balloon. Joseph Kittinger, aged 84, participated as capsule communicator.

Article written by Daniel Lew, published on 05 February 2006. Daniel is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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46 Comments
TDavis
Posted 05 February 2006 at 02:44 pm

This guy has cojones and then some. I'm impressed.


Phill
Posted 05 February 2006 at 03:09 pm

Amazing - When it goes "This was to be his last high-altitude balloon flight." I could almost swear there was going to be a huge accident with death... Glad that wasn't the case :D

Extreme Dare Devil if you ask me.


jmchez
Posted 05 February 2006 at 05:24 pm

I remember, as a kid, reading about his record-breaking feat in the Guiness Book of Records back in 1972. Of all the records in the book, Kittinger's has always been for me the one that had the best combination of awe inspiring greatness with mind-boggling courage.


mHagarty
Posted 05 February 2006 at 07:19 pm

I've always wondered what it would be like to jump from those heights. 5 minutes of free fall? That's a long time.


gorgeousplanet
Posted 05 February 2006 at 09:20 pm

Can anyone remind me what's the highest G-Force a human has sustained and lived through?


Furnace
Posted 06 February 2006 at 04:44 am

I'd like to know how you target a fall like that! At sub-orbital heights, with five minutes of free-fall, and who knows what kind of speeds... how do you know you're going to end up landing in a safe place and not, say, the Pacific Ocean or the heart of a city?


bernietbb
Posted 06 February 2006 at 05:40 am

gorgeousplanet: if i remember correctly, your average car accident at ~60 kph is around 50 G's


thermopile
Posted 06 February 2006 at 07:36 am

I saw Joe Kittenger give a speech here at the Air & Space Museum about a year or two ago. Very interesting, and he seemed like a surprisingly "normal guy." Everyone asked, "What did it look like from up there?" He claimed he was just doing his job, he didn't find it as awe-inspiring as everyone (including me) thinks it must have been.

His right hand had swelled to something the size of a softball, but he didn't say anything. If he had, he knew the mission controllers would have scrubbed the attempt.

He spent a lot of the rest of the time talking about his flying experience from the 1960s to today. He's flown a LOT of planes.


`
Posted 06 February 2006 at 05:51 pm

I'm with furnace....how do ya target this? Anybody know? Didn't one of these guys land up in northern MN in or near an open pit mine?


ragz
Posted 06 February 2006 at 05:54 pm

I'm with furnace….how do ya target this? Anybody know? Didn't one of these guys land up in northern MN in or near an open pit mine?

Furnace said: "I'd like to know how you target a fall like that! At sub-orbital heights, with five minutes of free-fall, and who knows what kind of speeds… how do you know you're going to end up landing in a safe place and not, say, the Pacific Ocean or the heart of a city?"

How much luck is involved?


ballaerina
Posted 06 February 2006 at 10:40 pm

Screw Evil-Kineval. This guy is way more hardcore.


karphi
Posted 07 February 2006 at 09:11 am

I AM SO HAPPY you guys put this article up. Kittinger is like a hero of mine. Alas, after retiring from 83 jumps, as high as I ever got jump was 13,500 ft.

At a standard belly-to-earth, or even back-to-earth position, an experience jumper can do a surprisingly good job of not drifting too far. The trouble with spotting is all in the craft that gets you up there, and the judgement of the pilot and jumper when exiting. I image it would have been even tougher in a balloon, especially considering the length of the journey up.

It's also amazing that he had, and successfully used, an automated reserve. It might be the first one, I don't know. But today automatic activation devices (AAD's) are commonplace and lifesaving.


Avenger
Posted 07 February 2006 at 02:11 pm

I remember seeing something about this on Discovery or maybe during a briefing during a morale day at work. Kittinger was talking about what it looked like during the freefall from so high up; he said that he jumped and felt like he wasn't moving very fast until he looked back and realized that the tiny dot waaaaay above him was the balloon he'd been standing in just moments before.


alipardiwala
Posted 08 February 2006 at 09:54 am

What a rush. Flying through the air at over 600 mph. And he flew planes. This guy's done a lot. My salutations to him.


Dave
Posted 08 February 2006 at 11:38 am

The Wikipedia article is interesting when it comments on his near fatal jump:

"The first, from 76,400 feet (23,287 m) in November, 1959 was a near tragedy when an equipment malfunction caused him to lose consciousness, but the automatic parachute saved him (he went into a flat spin at a rotational velocity of 120 rpm, the G factor calculated at his extremities was over 22 times that of gravity, setting another record)."

Dave

Dave


ballaerina
Posted 08 February 2006 at 04:00 pm

I wonder if he was affected by radiation.


indra c
Posted 24 February 2006 at 05:49 am

ballaerina said: "I wonder if he was affected by radiation."

Radiation probably altered the size of his cojones. If you ask me, looking at his jump record, I'm convinced he carries them around in a wheel-barrel.


another viewpoint
Posted 12 May 2006 at 12:03 pm

"...Kittinger gathered much valuable data about how humans react to being so incredibly high." Obviously, this writter hasn't been to enough college parties...yet...

gorgeousplanet said: "if i remember correctly, your average car accident at ~60 kph is around 50 G's"

...as the saying goes...it's not the speed, but rather, it's the sudden stop that kills. (ya gotta luv DI and it's reader/responses!)


another viewpoint
Posted 19 July 2006 at 07:33 pm

...102,800 feet and 614 mph...
nothing like flying by the seat of your pants. Damn interesting DI! Keep it up.


Drakvil
Posted 20 July 2006 at 12:07 am

gorgeousplanet said: "Can anyone remind me what's the highest G-Force a human has sustained and lived through?"

Found this for you, hope it answers your question:
* on 13 July 1977 British racing driver David Purley survived a deceleration from 173 km/h to zero in a distance of about 0.66 m, enduring 180 g (*)
* the beak of the red-headed woodpecker hits the bark of a tree with an impact velocity of over 21 km/h, subjecting the bird's brain to a deceleration of approximately 10 g when its head snaps back (*)
* when 'jack-knifing' into the air to escape predators, the click beetle averages 400 g (*)

(*) Source: Guinness Book of Records


HarleyHetz
Posted 20 July 2006 at 02:56 am

Wow, those are some incredible feats for sure!! Wish I had been able to be 1/2 as adverturous!!


schuylercat
Posted 20 July 2006 at 06:37 am

Always loved this story. Hard to imagine the nerve it took to step out of that gondola and fall. The video (replayed on television since I was a kid) shows him just hopping out, as if he’s stepping off the curb.

First time I bungee jumped I just stepped off – I never thought it was all that “daredevil-ish” to attach myself to a rubber band and jump toward an airbag – it was just fun. That first time though, for a split second I thought I was Kittenger: brave and ballsy, jumping into the void from the edge of space. About .012 seconds later the rubber band bounced me back up, I giggled and flopped, and went again and again. How brave, huh?

Five minutes he fell, in a leaky, heavy, creaky, crappy old “space suit” that evidently passed whatever QA testing they’d run it through. A lot of DI articles have an element of that old-school “paving the way” vibe to them (the guy who smacked the wad of radioactive material out of the way with his hand comes to mind), where people are just learning about the elemental, technical, and physical truths we now take for granted. “We didn’t know then. Now we know better” is something my college profs repeated a lot, “so now we do better.”

Do we, in this case? I wonder. Here’s a fair question: does anyone think it would be any easier to step out and fall like Kittenger did, using today’s technology? My answer, whether we “know better” or not, is…maybe?. 46 years later and all the technology or not, I know right here and now that I do not possess the testicular fortitude to just float up there and hop out without many different forms of significant assurances and reward. I COULD do it, but frankly, I really don’t WANT to. All the stuff that could have gone wrong then could still go wrong…it’s just less likely. Or maybe it seems less likely.

Joe Rogan might get me to do it on camera (that’s like a dirty-dog dare, isn’t it?), but he’d need the promises of NASA and a bunch of engineers, and also a million-jillion-willion bucks at the end of the journey. And then I still might not do it. A flotilla of engineers stared at blank screens for days up at JPL, waiting for data to come back after a few Mars-boucnd spacecraft evidently burned themselves to cinders on the way in.

Apples and oranges, true, but the point is in there: we know what we know, and what we don’t might kill us.

One thing: Kittenger didn’t have a choice but to jump once he was airborne, right? Easier to make the trip up, if jumping out is optional…

Whatever. I’ve run out of babble. I like to think I’m as brave as the next guy…but I suspect I’m a major puss compared to Kittenger and that’s that. I dunno if this article is about balls, technology, or history, but this story gets me thinking every time.


just_dave
Posted 20 July 2006 at 07:17 am

>... he went as fast as 614 MPH - not quite breaking the sound barrier...

The speed of sound is slower at higher altitudes (because of lower temperatures; see Wikipedia), so depending on his altitude when he hit 614mph, he was dang close. Maybe a speed suit with an aerodynamic helmet would help. Next time.

I've also got to wonder what happened to the balloon after he bailed out...

>Related Articles:
The Origin of Murphy's Law

That line made me laugh!


irea6242
Posted 20 July 2006 at 07:18 am

Wow. A guy who survives repeat record-breaking death-defying stunts in the name of Humankind. I don't know what impresses me more, how lucky he was or how crazy these ideas were.


banana989
Posted 20 July 2006 at 07:39 am

This guy is cool !


Dave
Posted 20 July 2006 at 09:53 am

And, in a few weeks (August 2006), another guy is going to try to break several of Mr. Kittinger's records:

http://www.space.com/news/060713_big_jump.html

In spotlighting the upcoming skydiving attempt, French astronaut, Jean-François Clervoy, explained that Fournier "will fulfill in a way one of my fantasies as an astronaut…which was always to ‘walk back home’ from space."


Dustin Barbour
Posted 22 July 2006 at 10:00 am

The speed of sound is slower at higher altitudes (because of lower temperatures; see Wikipedia), so depending on his altitude when he hit 614mph, he was dang close. Maybe a speed suit with an aerodynamic helmet would help. Next time.

Sorry, friend. The speed of sound has nothing to do with temperature and everything to do with density. It all depends on how much material is around for the wave to propogate through. Metal and water make the speed of sound very fast. That's why a SCUBA diver has a hard time locating things with sound. Our brains are not accustomed to the increase in the speed of sound. In fact, cold temeratures would serve to make the speed of sound faster and most things condense as they cool.


just_dave
Posted 23 July 2006 at 11:34 am

Dustin Barbour said: "Sorry, friend. The speed of sound has nothing to do with temperature and everything to do with density. It all depends on how much material is around for the wave to propogate through. Metal and water make the speed of sound very fast. That's why a SCUBA diver has a hard time locating things with sound. Our brains are not accustomed to the increase in the speed of sound. In fact, cold temeratures would serve to make the speed of sound faster and most things condense as they cool."

Sorry Dustin: Other more authoritative sources say otherwise. For example, here's a quote from NASA's website:

The speed of sound is a constant within a given gas and the value of the constant depends on the type of gas (air, pure oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc.) and the temperature of the gas. An analysis based on conservation of mass and momentum shows that the speed of sound a is equal to the square root of the ratio of specific heats g times the gas constant R times the temperature T.

a = sqrt [g * R * T]

In other words, the speed of sound in air (a gas) is constant at a given temperature. At higher altitudes the temperature is lower, and thus the speed of sound is lower at higher altitudes.


needles
Posted 24 July 2006 at 05:37 pm

I've always wanted to sky-dive...


takisword
Posted 25 July 2006 at 02:43 am

just imagining it make me sick, such a height...


Stead311
Posted 25 July 2006 at 12:14 pm

The man fell faster than 600 mph to the earth. I don't know what exactly would drive someone to propel down to the earth at a speed that would crush every red blood cell in your body on impact... but I am totally friggin happy that he decided to do it anyways. I've only gone cliff diving and that is enough for me.


noway
Posted 27 July 2006 at 11:30 am

just_dave said: "Sorry Dustin: Other more authoritative sources say otherwise. For example, here's a quote from NASA's website:

In other words, the speed of sound in air (a gas) is constant at a given temperature. At higher altitudes the temperature is lower, and thus the speed of sound is lower at higher altitudes."

PWNED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Ozgeo
Posted 30 July 2006 at 06:01 pm

What a life! Kittinger has definitely got a place on my "people I'd like to have a beer with" list. I saw a documentary on him a few years ago and he reckons the most interesting part of that jump was that, because he was so high there was nothing except the balloon to gauge his speed of decent. Until he got closer to the clouds below him it felt like he wasn't even moving.


cythe
Posted 07 August 2006 at 11:29 am

To just dave with regards to gasses in test conditions,

When researchers and Scientists do tests with gasses they almost always have the conditions at STP (standard temperature and pressure). Therefore, most likely the equation you posted does not consider the differences in pressure that would happen at much higher altitudes. Standard Pressure for gas is 1 atm. Or the pressure at sea level. So while I'm sure your equation is perfectly accurate at sea level and zero degrees celsius (standard temperature), it is probably wrong about what would be mach at higher altitudes. Therefore, you're right probably right about how temperature effects the speed of sound. But, density of the gas (or pressure) is the much more pressing matter outside of the laboratory and perfect STP conditions.


cythe
Posted 07 August 2006 at 11:31 am

Sorry about any grammar mistakes I'm at work here!


robjm
Posted 12 August 2006 at 11:41 am

You can view footage of the freefall at http://www.warprecords.com/dayvancowboy/ . The musical group Boards of Canada used the footage for their music video for the song "Dayvan Cowboy."


elifint
Posted 23 August 2006 at 10:20 pm

cythe said: "To just dave with regards to gasses in test conditions,

When researchers and Scientists do tests with gasses they almost always have the conditions at STP (standard temperature and pressure). Therefore, most likely the equation you posted does not consider the differences in pressure that would happen at much higher altitudes. Standard Pressure for gas is 1 atm. Or the pressure at sea level. So while I'm sure your equation is perfectly accurate at sea level and zero degrees celsius (standard temperature), it is probably wrong about what would be mach at higher altitudes. Therefore, you're right probably right about how temperature effects the speed of sound. But, density of the gas (or pressure) is the much more pressing matter outside of the laboratory and perfect STP conditions."

Sorry, no. The equation giving the speed of sound proportional to the square root of temperature is correct for anything that behaves to a decent approximation as an ideal gas. Dry air at any elevation works just fine. The constant of proportionality is different for different gases (depending on the molecular mass and the ratio of specific heats, sometimes called the adiabatic constant or expressed as a Gruneisen parameter; makes no difference), but for a given gas, if you know the temperature, you know the speed of sound, regardless of the density. This can be derived straight from dimensional analysis and the ideal gas law in about 2 lines; getting the gamma parameter right takes a couple more lines.

The idea that scientists almost always work with gases at STP is very odd. We use all sorts of temperatures and pressures, from microkelvin and picopascals to megakelvin and gigapascals and beyond. What's the point of having an equation that works at only ONE temperature and pressure?

The equation stops working in a number of extreme cases, for example density approaching that of a liquid or solid, or temperature high enough to cause dissociation or ionization. Otherwise, if it's much like an ideal gas, the equation is right.

Try googling "ideal gas speed of sound."


Reelfar
Posted 15 October 2006 at 11:46 pm

Watching that guy step off the edge of the world took my breath away and gave me chills. He has more balls then anybody I know. What a guy.


LoveTheOnesYouNeed
Posted 25 October 2006 at 01:00 pm

I didn't read all of the other comments so I apologize if I'm being redundant. But if you go over to KircherSociety.org there's a video of him doing this. It's amazing stuff.


yesyouam
Posted 24 January 2007 at 09:35 am

Oh, man. Hitting the sound barrier would have been quite a bad scene.


joe
Posted 19 February 2007 at 11:39 pm

what ever happend to the frenchman who was to counter this record?


Wave Mechanic
Posted 22 May 2007 at 06:02 am

Given all the interest in Kittinger's maximum velocity and whether it exceeded the speed of sound, it's interesting to note that there's some ambiguity in the records on the web about this.

While several sites give the 614 mph value used in this article, the official USAF site at http://www.af.mil/history/person.asp?dec=&pid=123006518 states "Kittinger fell at speeds up to 714 mph, exceeding the speed of sound." This is echoed by the Stratocat site at http://stratocat.com.ar/fichas-e/1960/HMN-19600816.htm.

joe said: "what ever happend to the frenchman who was to counter this record?"

The French parachutist Michel Fournier has a website about his plan to break Kittinger's records at http://www.legrandsaut.org/ where he indicates that he will be attempting the jump again in 2007. The August 2006 attempt was called off for financial reasons after Fournier was the victim of fraud.


tarteauxpommes
Posted 21 June 2007 at 02:15 pm

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That would freak the hell out of me.


Alx_xlA
Posted 29 September 2007 at 07:39 pm

gorgeousplanet said: "Can anyone remind me what's the highest G-Force a human has sustained and lived through?"

179.8 g's involuntarily (brief deceleration), and 46.2 g's (sustained deceleration) voluntarily.

At a standard belly-to-earth, or even back-to-earth position, an experience jumper can do a surprisingly good job of not drifting too far."

Capt. Kittinger dove in a standing position, due to his drogue chute.

As the sign under the entrance to the gondola says, "This is the highest step in the world."


karmabhutan
Posted 13 November 2008 at 07:22 am

I am glad that his hardwork and determination has truly paidoff and still record stands today. I wish oneday i could have done simileir like him. Its my dream, but too expensive dream. I wish to see him one day. karma bhutan


igmothemagus
Posted 15 October 2012 at 05:14 am

Apparently this article will need an update! Felix Baumgartner just broke some of Mr. Kittinger's records with Mr. Kittinger's as a member of his team. Felix jumped out of a balloon that was up so high that the atmospheric pressure outside his capsule was barely registering. Felix DID break the sound barrier due to his terminal velocity being much greater in the near vaccuum!

His flight was not without some malfunctions though, the heater in his visor was not working and caused his helmet to fog up. At one point Felix was tumbling barely in control of his orientation and descent.


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