NPF: EXCELSIOR!

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 19th, 2012 by Ed

By now you have all seen Felix Baumgartner's parachute leap from over 100,000 feet. This is mightily impressive and nothing can diminish the magnitude of this accomplishment. I cannot help but be even more impressed, however, by the fact that someone already did this. 52 years ago. With equipment that was beyond rudimentary for the task.

In 1960 the Air Force conducted Project Excelsior, an experiment to test parachutes from obscenely high altitudes to determine the feasibility of pilots ejecting from new (at the time) super-high flying aircraft like the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the (later canceled, but possibly the most incredible aircraft ever constructed) XB-70 Valkyrie. A retired USAF pilot named Joseph Kittinger volunteered to make a jump from 100,000 feet to test a drogue parachute. So, to be clear, he volunteered to don a ramshackle pressure suit, ride a flimsy helium balloon to altitudes no human had seen without the protection of a spacecraft, and then jump out to test a parachute that nobody could be certain would work.

The real question is where they found a balloon with enough lifting capacity to accommodate Kittinger (150 lbs), his gear (155 lbs), and his gargantuan balls (3 short tons).

On the way up the glove on his space suit depressurized, but he didn't tell anyone because he was afraid they would cancel the mission. So instead he went up there with a part of his body exposed to space. His hand swelled to twice its size and did not return to normal for several days after he landed.

I have always been fascinated by this, even from a very early age when I saw a Life Magazine photo spread in a coffee table book about NASA. One of the great pleasures I had while living in Indiana was visiting the USAF Museum in Dayton and seeing the actual balloon and basket that carried Kittinger into space. I don't have the words to express how small and flimsy it was. "Tiny" might be more accurate than small, and I'm pretty sure it was made of canvas. He basically floated up into space in a potato sack.

It's an impressive feat regardless of when it is or was done. I want to make a minor contribution, though, to making sure Joseph Kittinger gets some well deserved attention for having done this a half century ago under spartan conditions and with a substantial risk that he was just going to plow into the Earth and die. It would be as if someone had climbed Everest 52 years before Hillary and Tenzig wearing bulky wool coats and sleeping in a canvas tent. (Cue the George Mallory link)