Mind that first step…

By » Fri, August 3 2012

I’ve been following Felix Baumgartner’s attempt at breaking the record for longest free fall for at least the last two years. While I encourage daredevil acts in general both for the amount of daring and ingenuity involved, I can’t help but think it pales in comparison to the effort of the previous record holder USAF Col (ret.) Joe Kittinger.

In 1960 the US was in the throes of the space and aviation race with the Soviets. Seemingly every month saw the shattering of speed or altitude records. As the altitudes increased, and space drew within grasp, the Air Force felt it necessary to determine if it was even possible to return to Earth safely minus air or space craft. On April 16, 1960 -almost one full year before Yuri Gagarin became the first man launched into space- Col. Kittinger hung suspended 102,800 feet above the Earth peered over the edge of the balloon gondola and jumped.

Unlike Baumgartner, however, Col. Kittinger didn’t do it for the sheer thrill of it. Kittinger was part of the Air Force’s Project Excelsior. The aim of Excelsior was to add to the thimbleful of knowledge the Air Force possessed about survival at high altitude. At the time they literally did not know if a pilot could bail out of his aircraft (or spacecraft) at such altitude. This ignorance despite the face that the Air Force was regularly flying above 75,000 feet since Chuck Yeager’s flight in December 1953. Col. Kittinger’s record has stood ever since that day in the spring of 1959. So while I admire Felix Baumgartner’s vision and daring, I revere Col. Kittinger and his brave contribution to the science of high altitude flight.

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