Joseph Kittinger joined the United States Air Force because he wanted to pull some serious G's, barrel roll around like a maniac, tear ass through the skies, dismantle bullshit Soviet MiGs with his autocannons and fly it right into the fucking danger zone like a bastard in the process. A former competitive speedboat racer, Kittinger enlisted as a USAF cadet in 1949, made Lieutenant within a year, and was flying fighter jets in the 86th Squadron in West Germany at a time when it was a very real possibility that he was going to need to frag the shit out of a bunch of Russkies some time in the near future.
Luckily for Russia, he never got the chance. He ended up getting called back to New Mexico and stationed at a USAF missile development center for a couple of years, working with badass engineers who were constantly trying to go as fast as fucking possible all the goddamned time just for the hell of it. Kittinger piloted an observation plane when mad scientist/lunatic John Paul Stapp's rocket-powered psycho-sled set the still-standing land speed record, traveling 632 miles an hour through the desert of Arizona or New Mexico or some shit. Stapp was pretty pumped up about how awesome Kittinger was at not erupting into a flaming explosion while traveling at such high speeds, so he recommended the man with the giant swollen steel-plated nutbag for a super-secret test on the effects of ridiculously high-altitudes on the human body. Kittinger, apparently being utterly fearless, jumped on the first hot-air balloon he could find. In 1957, he set a world record by taking a balloon up 96,000 feet into the Troposphere (or whatever the hell that layer of the atmosphere is called). This is roughly three times higher than the cruising altitude of a standard 747, but Kittinger didn't give a crap. He calmly annihilated the record and won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his brazen display of steel-plated brass-ballitude.
Because he was a total badass, Kittinger simply shrugged his shoulders and said, "meh", about being up that high, so he decided to push it to the limit to the ultimate gonzo max and take the next step – literally. In 1958 he took a goddamned balloon 76,400 feet into the air, strapped on a parachute, and fucking jumped out the basket like a crazy person. Unsatisfied with the fact that he blacked out during his descent (having your cranial cavity compressed by 22 times the force of gravity while a malfunctioning parachute is wrapped around your throat and your entire body is helicoptering around like John Elway in the Super Bowl has a tendency to do that to some people), Kittinger went back and did it again twenty-five days later, this time without passing out. On the way down, he tested another experimental Air Force parachute designed to save the lives of jet pilots bailing out of their awesome U-2s and SR-71 Blackbirds at Mach ten billion.
That’s right, not only was Joseph Kittenger voluntarily jumping out of a goddamned helium balloon fourteen and a half miles in the air - he was doing it with an untested prototype parachute serving as the only thing preventing him from hitting the ground at Mach 1 and detonating on impact. If that doesn't take nerves and/or balls of steel, than nothing does.
Somewhat amazingly, that wasn't even the most insane thing that this adrenaline-addicted badass ever attempted. In August of 1960, he put on a fucking spacesuit and jumped from 102,800 feet. This was – and is – the highest altitude at which any man has ever been crazy enough to jump out of a moving vehicle. Seriously, any higher, and he might as well have been leaping out of the freaking Space Shuttle. He was in freefall for four and a half minutes, traveling over 714 miles per hour and withstanding temperatures close to -100 degrees Fahrenheit. While hurtling head-first towards the earth like Wile E. Coyote on a bad peyote trip he became the first man to exceed the speed of sound without a vehicle. Re-read that sentence again, and give it a minute for the complete utter insanity of that statement to sink in. This guy was literally traveling faster than a speeding fucking bullet. The entire trip, from balloon to pavement, took thirteen and a half minutes. He lived, probably through sheer force of will alone. Two years later, he took an astronomer high enough into the atmosphere that the dude was able to discover previously-uncharted regions of deep space using little more than a high-powered telescope, and stayed in the upper atmosphere for something like 18 hours.
Here's what Joseph Kittinger liked: Chewing tacks, flying really high in balloons, jumping out of things, and shooting motherfuckers from the cockpit of a fighter plane. When the U.S. got "in the shit" in Vietnam, he volunteered for a tour of duty in the South Pacific. Three times. He commanded the famous 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flew 483 combat missions, dogfighted (dogfought?) a bunch of NVA MiGs, and survived being shot down and spending 11 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" – one of the most ruthless and shitty dungeons this side of the Middle Ages.
Kittinger continued in the USAF after his experience in North Vietnam, finally retiring in 1978 at the age of 50. He spent his retirement hanging out in Orlando, enjoying the sun, and becoming the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in a hot air balloon. Suck it, Jules Verne!
Joseph Kittinger was a badass who not only skydived from lower orbit and performed more towering acts of fearlessness on his way to the men's room than most people accomplish in their entire lives, but also was a pioneer in the technology of manned space flight. His early work – going really goddamned high up in balloons and jumping out of them – proved to scientists that it was actually possible for human beings to survive at ultra-high altitudes (there was some doubt when he embarked on the mission, but nothing as trivial as 'potentially dying' could keep JK from doing something awesome) and research from these missions proved instrumental in the beginnings of the American Space Program. Even though he's a pretty obscure character, he is truly an American hero on par with guys like Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong.
|"We did it for air crews and astronauts - for the learning, not to set a record. [Others] will be going up as skydivers. Somebody will beat it someday. Records are made to be busted. And I'll be elated. But I'll also be concerned that they're properly trained. If they're not, they're taking a heck of a risk."
Centennial of Flight
National Space Museum