Thursday, May 1, 2008

(Meeting) The Man Who Fell To Earth

Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger shakes hands with a mere mortal during a visit to Prague.

"As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary."
-- Ernest Hemingway

I met one of my heroes the other day. In fact, I had a beer with him.

His name is Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger, and he's one of history's bravest men. Many people consider Colonel Kittinger to have been the first man in space. I'm one of them.

In fact, the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. just awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award, putting him in the company of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. They've also created a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian on Kittinger's career.

What did Colonel Kittinger do?

In a nutshell, he rode a giant helium balloon into space and then, wearing an early version of a spacesuit, he jumped -- 103,000 feet (31,333 meters), or almost 20 miles, above the desert of New Mexico. Colonel Kittinger still holds the world's record for the highest parachute jump, the longest freefall (more than four and a half minutes), and the highest balloon ascent.

And he did all of this in August 1960. He went up in a balloon because no airplane or rocket could yet ascend to that height. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin wouldn't make his trip into space until April 1961.

Colonel Kittinger's heroics as a pre-astronaut in Project Excelsior furthered research into how man could survive in the vacuum of space. His jump also perfected the technology that went into ejector seats in high-altitude aircraft and spacecraft, such as the Gemini program.

On the way up, part of his pressure suit developed a leak, and his right hand swelled up with blood to twice its normal size, but Colonel Kittinger didn't tell anyone on the ground because he knew the mission would be scrubbed if he did. Even though he didn't know what would happen to him and his suit, he kept on soaring upward.

Colonel Kittinger titled his autobiography "The Long, Lonely Leap."

I dedicated a previous post on this blog to Colonel Kittinger because I wanted to spread the word about his feats and share my obsession with the remarkable film of him jumping out of the gondola, the inky blackness of space enveloping him, the curvature of the Earth clearly visible below.

A cover story in the August 29, 1960, issue of "Life" magazine calls Colonel Kittinger a "new space hero" and says the images of his leap are "some of the most exciting pictures of a man's daring ever made."

He is quoted in "Life" as telling ground control, "There is a hostile sky above me. Man may live in space, but he will never conquer it."

Colonel Kittinger was kind enough to autograph this August 1960 copy of "Life" magazine, with a picture of him in free-fall on the cover.

The Boards of Canada, an electronic music duo from Scotland, used footage of Colonel Kittinger's jump for their video of a song called "Dayvan Cowboy." The footage of Colonel Kittinger in the first half of the video is all real. It then devolves into a bit of fantasy, but the music complements Colonel Kittinger's experience perfectly:

If those jumps weren't enough (he did three in all, the first two from slightly lower altitudes), he went on to fly almost 500 combat missions over Vietnam before being shot down over North Vietnam in 1972 after shooting down a MiG-21. He was captured and held for 11 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, along with U.S. Senator John McCain and others.

In that first blog post, I mentioned that, even though I'm a professional journalist, I couldn't muster the courage to call Colonel Kittinger and interview him.

Well, I finally found the courage, and called him up at his home in the United States, and he answered the phone, and we had a fantastic conversation. I was buzzing for hours afterward.

Incredibly, when I told Colonel Kittinger that I was calling from Prague, he said, "I'm going to be in Prague in a few weeks."

Just imagine how I would have felt if I'd waited a month or so to call him. "You're in Prague? Well, I was just in Prague a few weeks ago!"

I think I would have jumped off of something very high if that had happened.

As it turns out, Colonel Kittinger and his wife, Sherry, were coming to Prague as part of a European tour of aviation and military sites. Their visit to the Czech Republic included a trip to the aviation museum in Kbely, in northeast Prague, as well as a tour of the castle and the Old Town. It wasn't his first visit to Prague. He flew a hot-air balloon over the city a few years ago.

Colonel Kittinger was kind enough to take a few moments out of his visit to have an early evening drink with Daisy, Emma, and me, as well as Stewart and his two boys.

What a thrill. He even said we could call him Joe (although I find that difficult to do). I'm in awe of this man.

After the Vietnam War ended and he was released from prison camp, Colonel Kittinger went on to work for Martin Marietta and founded ballooning and barnstorming companies in the United States.

In 1984, he became the first person to fly a balloon solo across the Atlantic Ocean -- from Maine to Italy. And he's still flying biplanes and balloons, at the age of 79, and traveling tirelessly around Europe.

Now that man's got gusto.

Thanks, Colonel Kittinger, for a meeting I will never forget.

Stewart was as thrilled as I was to meet Colonel Kittinger.


  1. All i can say is .... woah!!!

  2. What a guy.

    Thought you might be interested in this clip...

  3. Thanks, Dave. That's a great clip. I like all the layers of clothes. One of the pictures in "Life" magazine has him on the desert floor after the jump, with his shirt off, and you can see the imprint of his clothing embedded in his skin.

    I found this comment about Kittinger on a YouTube video. I love it:

    "Although It May Seem As Though He Is Accelerating To The Earth, It Is Quite The Opposite. The Earth Rather Is Being Accelerated Towards Joe Due To The Massive Size And Density Of His Testicles."

  4. Hi Grant, I loved this post of yours on Colonel Kittinger. It made my eyes tear up because it's fabulous to see a genuine American hero appreciated like this. I am moving to Prague this summer and thoroughly enjoy both your blogs. May I link to them on my site? I have gusto! Thanks, Karen

  5. Dear Karen,

    Thanks so much for your comment. That's very nice of you. He's an amazing man. Of course, you may link to my blogs! Of course! You have a blog, too? What is it?

    All the best.

  6. Grant, click on my name in the comments. It takes you to my profile. My blog is listed on the bottom.

  7. Great blog, Karen. All the best to you in your Prague adventure. Let me know if I can help.

  8. Check this out in the NY Times today "Man Plans to Plunge to Earth From 130,000 Feet" -- mentions Kittinger:

    Here's the Kittinger bit (in case the link goes to archive):

    The highest previous recorded jump from a balloon was performed in 1960 by Joe Kittinger, a United States Air Force test pilot who leaped from 102,800 feet and exceeded 600 miles per hour before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet. He was down in less than 14 minutes.

    Reached by phone last week at his home outside Orlando, Fla., Kittinger, 79, said he was surprised his record had stood for so long.

    Fournier and Kittinger correspond through e-mail. “I told him many years ago, it’s very hostile,” Kittinger said. “You’re in a vacuum, and your whole life is dependent on the pressure suit working properly. If the pressure suit fails, you die.”

    Kittinger is contacted regularly by others interested in breaking his record. “There’s a whole bunch of them out there that are just like Fournier and just like the guy in England,” he said. “Most of them don’t have the money to do it.”

    Some say that with scientific information already gathered from this kind of jump, there is little benefit beyond learning what happens to the human body at supersonic speeds. Others suggest that the leap could generate serious interest in space travel, the way the Wright brothers helped inspire aeronautics.

    “A front-row seat of space,” Truglia said. “I think that will appeal to a certain sector of society, people that want to adventure and live on the edge.”

    But Kittinger expressed skepticism about tourists attempting to cope at such high altitude.

    “It was definitely beautiful, but it’s also hostile,” he said. His right hand swelled to twice its normal size when his glove failed to pressurize properly.

    From those lonely heights, the speedy return trip was a relief.

    “Yes, it was nice to be headed back to earth, because it’s an environment that we can live in,” Kittinger said. “And it’s a beautiful planet, really.”

  9. Thanks, Brewsta. I had, indeed, heard of Fournier's efforts and had seen the NYT article. The jump is supposed to happen in a few hours as I write this. We're all staying tuned!