NPF: EXCELSIOR!

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)

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21 Responses to “NPF: EXCELSIOR!”

  1. Mike S. Says:

    All of this is certainly awesome, but why are you worried that Kittinger won't get the well deserved attention/historical mention?
    He was an integral part of the Baumgartner team, and has appeared at recent press conferences, it's not like he's getting overlooked.
    For example:
    "Baumgartner, 43, completed his historic sky-dive above

  2. Mike S. Says:

    Also, what is wrong with your blog, it just ate half my previous comment (the end of the quotation and the link to the piece in the Washington Post)?

  3. ladiesbane Says:

    Agreed. To tell you the truth, I had my wee nationalistic sad that it wasn't a NASA project. But I was more worried because of the article I read in Esquire, August 2010, about Felix Baumgartner. I know he's a pilot and all, but he gave his crew fits. Here's the link: http://www.esquire.com/felix-baumgartner-skydive-0810-4

    Go directly to page 4 to read the "we told you not to use hair gel, damn it" speech, among others.

  4. Jaime Says:

    It's early enough that the proprietor of G&T may read this and correct –
    Kittinger was not retired. Active duty, did IIRC three jumps for EXCELSIOR culminating in his not-to-be-broken-for-half-a-century 102k plus foot high dive. Which he did on a USAF Captain's salary. He then commanded the STARGAZER balloon flight, which took an astronomical telescope up to 80k feet. Moved on to fly combat with the USAF Air Commandos in Vietnam and then flew F4 Phantoms in command of the 555th Fighter Squadron. Credited with 1 kill (a MiG21). Shot down himself and was a POW. Then there are all his record-breaking balloon flights as a civilian…

  5. Major Kong Says:

    Speaking of USAF officers with 3-ton balls….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_P._Stapp

  6. c u n d gulag Says:

    Here's my personal civilian hero of flight – "Lawnchair Larry."
    He wasn't quite a space pioneer, but it can't be argued that he was, indeed, a pioneer – just not what category.

    He wanted to build a contraption out of a Sears lawnchair and helium balloons, bring along a sandwich and a six-pack of beer, and float gently over his neighbors houses, to watch their envy at his inventiveness. He went up with no parachute – only a small pellet gun, to shoot out some ballons, so he could return from his little trip.

    Instead, he shot up like a cannonball, and ended up at 16,000 feet – into the primary approach corridor of LAX, where startled Trans World Airlines and Delta Airlines pilots radioed in reports of the strange sight of seeing a man in a lawnchair held up by helium ballons.
    Can you imagine the first pilot to see this? He must have been wondering if he should ask his co-pilot if he saw the same thing, and risk being thought completely insane and delusional if the co-pilot said he saw nothing.
    And can you imagine the two of them, calling in a stewardess to confirm the sight, before they called in what they saw to the control tower?

    "Lawnchair Larry" was up there for 14 hours, setting the lawnchair altitude and longevity records – which will probably never be challanged. At least not by anyone sane.

    Eventually, he was getting tired and realized he had to do something, so he started to shoot out ballons so he could return to Earth.

    When he finally came down, his cords hit a power-line, blacking out a neighborhood – AND HE SURVIVED!

    Here is the Darwin Awards account of "Lawnchair Larry's" epic flight:

    http://darwinawards.com/stupid/stupid1998-11.html

    Match THAT, NASA and Airforce!!!

  7. skyskier Says:

    BOC made the music video for this post a few years ago…

  8. gbbalto Says:

    I remember reading about Kittinger when I was a kid, and I was glad to see that Baumgartner and his team tapped him as a principal advisor.

    Interestingly, George Mallory was, in fact, wearing suitable clothing for Everest:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5076634.stm

  9. acer Says:

    Felix Bumgartner: Wuss.

  10. zombie rotten mcdonald Says:


    BOC made the music video for this post a few years ago…

    You tease. I was trying to think of a Blue Oyster Cult song that would have been appropriate for a balloon jump video…

  11. mothra Says:

    Also, what is wrong with your blog,

    It hates you, Mike S. HATES you.

    (Just kidding, of course. Doubt it's the blog–more like the ghost in the machine.)

  12. acer Says:

    @zombie:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUO_5EALZoM

    Duh.

  13. Major Kong Says:

    @acer

    Needs more cowbell.

  14. JK Says:

    For a great take on the Early Everest Expeditions and Mallory "Into the Silence" by Wade Davis. Have you read it yet? Highly recommend it. The WWI history and background for the early expeditions was something I had not read about before.

  15. mel in oregon Says:

    pretty impressive stuff, as was last night's football between asu & the ducks. arizona state was 5-1 coming into the game. but halfway thru the second quarter the ducks led 43-7. no point in embarassing a good team who lost their best player the first play of the game. so coach kelly put in the 2d & 3rd stringers, so they would get to say they played in games on a great team. it will mean something to them decades from now. also how about those beavers, #8 in the country, & the national media didn't have a clue. oregon is just chock full of great athletes, & terrific people in general, maybe it has something to do with the water we drink or the air we breathe.

  16. JazzBumpa Says:

    Then, again, it might just be the beavers . . .

  17. Death Panel Truck Says:

    On Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy LP, you can hear Motorhead Sherwood say, "I went to work at an aircraft company, and, uh, I was building these planes. I worked on the XB-70. I was the last welder on there."

    He then avers that it "was pretty good bread, 'cause I was makin', uh, $2.71 an hour, makin' a hundred and a quarter a week." It was good enough money for him to buy "an Oldsmobile, a groovy Olds," but his girlfriend and her friends basically trashed it.

  18. Major Kong Says:

    The XB-70 was indeed the coolest aircraft ever built.

    Unfortunately it cost $1 million per FLIGHT – in 1967 dollars.

    To put that into perspective, a front-line fighter in 1967 cost around $1.7 million.

  19. Robert Says:

    It reminds me of something Buckminster Fuller wrote. To paraphrase, if we took all the brainpower and materiel we now use on military hardware and devoted it to 'livingry' (i.e., cool, useful stuff), what a world we would have.
    To clarify, by 'we' he meant 'all of humans everywhere'.

  20. Emma from NC Says:

    Oh thank goodness people remember Kittinger! I was awed by the video I saw of his original fall, and man, he would be the dude to consult if you're jumping out of a balloon in space. Cracked had the best metaphor to describe him, but I can't quite remember it– something about how there is a parallel world inhabited by higher-dimensional beings of pure balls, and that the human brain is unable to process such unadulterated testicular fortitude in its true glory, and we perceive only the merest shadow of such a being, and that unable to pronounce its true name, we call this ambassador to our earthly realm "Joseph Kittinger." Yeah they said it better. Point is, Joseph Kittinger, man. DAMN.

  21. Halloween Jack Says:

    I dunno–I'd hesitate to risk losing my hand, knowing (as I'm sure Kittinger did) that someone could have gone up in a similar balloon a year later and let their capsule go up another thousand feet and grab the record. Especially if it's the hand that he jerks off with. And, of course, in addition to the ever-present parachute-fails-and-he-goes-splat risk, Baumgartner took the chance that he'd go into a cartwheeling spin at supersonic speed that would rip his arms and legs off just as if he were your sister's Barbie doll when you were demonstrating to her the difference between it and a Stretch Armstrong.