Until today, Joe Kittinger was one of a kind.
Much of the planning for any complicated project involves contingencies for when things go wrong. NASA’s manned space program was no different — one of the reasons why Apollo 13 was able to get back successfully was that the organization was used to the idea that things might explode or malfunction or otherwise not work. In the event of a near-space malfunction, NASA wanted to find out whether or not it was possible for an astronaut to bail out of a spacecraft.
You can’t exactly test something like that without actually sending someone up there to do it, so the U.S. government picked Joe Kittinger, a skillful pilot with a history of high-altitude balloon tests. The mission was simple: Kittinger would ride a specially-constructed balloon wearing a prototype space suit to about 100,000 feet, step out onto the railing, and jump.
This is, of course, an insane thing to do. Nothing about the environment at 100,000 feet is hospitable to human life — it’s about as close to space as you can get without it actually being space. Kittinger lost consciousness in an earlier jump — without his guidance, his body went into a spin that placed extreme stresses on his limbs. Another bit of foresight saved his life: his parachute opened automatically at a set altitude, and Kittinger was free to go up again. On his final ascent, one of his hands swelled up to about twice its normal size due to a pressurization malfunction — you can well imagine what the pressure differential would do to an unprotected human body at that altitude — but Kittinger went anyway. Here’s what it looked like:
Joe Kittinger fell for four and a half minutes. He hit speeds of more than six hundred miles an hour. He made himself into a meteor.
Kittinger deployed his own parachute this time, and floated to safety in a desert in New Mexico. All told, he had fallen 102,800 feet, a record until today.
Joe Kittinger is 84 years old, his days of falling long over. Today, he sat in a mission control room, talking a man named Felix Baumgartner through an experience only the two of them had ever shared. Felix Baumgartner is a professional daredevil — he’s jumped off buildings and statues and, on one skydive, across the English channel. Baumgartner’s equipment is more advanced, and his mission more public, but he still had to do what Kittinger did — look down at distant Earth, step out onto a railing, and jump.
On the ground, watching as a man fell through his record, moving faster than the sound of the words he was broadcasting, Joe Kittinger must have felt that he’d finally found someone he could really relate to. We use the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” to give credit to those who’ve come before us, but giants are lonely. They’re more likely to give us a hand up. If only we’d ask.