Missed history

I pride myself as being a repository of useless information.  As a kid I liked to read the Trivial Pursuit cards, encyclopedias, and magazines (that was pre cable TV, DVD, and PC world as well as where I grew up).  I was not a book worm but I did learn a lot and quite a bit stuck.  Over the years I have grown a bit jaded and cynical, be it approaching middle age or what, forgetting the joys and wonderment in learning something new and useless.  Learning things for your profession, PMP for example, is academic and has practical application but is not something people outside of your profession will find interesting, try striking up a conversation at a bar over best approach for work breakdown structures.

My habits have changed quite a bit over the past 10 years, namely my watching of TV, listening to new music, etc. for obvious and much discussed reasons.  Last night was a rare exception as there is an English based TV station in Shanghai, ICS (International Channel Shanghai), and after a repeat of Don’t Forget the Lyrics they had a British documentary series on called Speed, vol 3.  The host is from a popular British performance car show I have seen only a couple of times before.  Back to the story.  He was going on about the race to break the sound barrier, the USAF SR-71 project, and the worlds largest wind tunnel, owned by NASA, all of which I knew quite a bit about due to my previously mentioned habits and my early teen fascination with airplanes and desires to join the Air Force just to get closer to fighters (I knew I would never pass a pilots test).

The next part of the show was a part of US aviation, and consequently space exploration, I had never heard of in high school, the military, or college.  That was the tale of project Excelsior and the dedication of Colonel Joseph Kittinger of the USAF in 1959 and 1960.  I am not sure of never hearing of this due to the super secrecy involved because it was associated with the SR-71 program, space program, or just that history book writers didn’t feel Kittinger and his story was as interesting and note worthy as Chuck Yeager, the Mercury Program, or Space Race with the USSR at the time.  When you look at the project, look at the official sites outside of Wikipedia please, it is amazing the accomplishments made and the courage needed to do what sounds like a simple task but it quite extraordinary.  I will not re-tell the tale but instead offer links to the sites that do.  I will talk about why this tale is something that may not sound so significant on the history of aviation but is very significant on the ability of us humans and how determined we can be when we believe.

There are some contradictory parts of the tale.  In the program, and on a few web sites, Col. Kittinger, then a Captain, is stated of reaching terminal velocities ranging from sub-sonic (614 MPH according to Centennial of Flight.gov website) to super sonic (714 MPH according to many non-government sources).  In the program I saw Kittinger himself state he was not sure of his speed but he never felt anything if he did break the sound barrier, which makes the issue open ended.  The speed needed to be reached is 670 MPH or 300m/s but seeing his record haven’t been broken since states his speeds, lengths of falling, and altitude of the jump are not for the faint of heart or cash to break. 

Here are some interesting facts about Capt. Kittinger’s odyssey into world record assent, jump, and freefall.

  • The balloon held nearly 3 million cubic feet of helium to lift the open gondola high into the stratosphere
  • Nov. 16, 1959, Capt. Kittinger made the first jump from Excelsior I at an altitude of 76,400 feet (23,165 meters)
  • His stabilization chute deployed 4 seconds too early getting caught around his neck rendering him unconscious, his main chute opened automatically
  • Dec. 11, 1959, Capt. Kittinger jumped from an altitude of 74,700 feet (22,769 meters)
  • His second jump had him break the free fall record as he fell 55,000 feet (16,764 meters) before deploying his main chute
  • Aug. 16, 1960, Capt. Kittinger jumped reached a height of 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) almost 20 miles above the earth, breaking balloon altitude record
  • His third jump, from 102,800 feet, had him endure minus 94 degrees F (minus 70 degrees C) temperatures
    • Maximum altitude reached in one hour and 31 minutes, maintained for 12 minutes
    • Pressure suit failure at 43,000 feet rendering his right hand useless with altitude swelling
    • Weighed down with nearly twice his weight due to clothes, pressure suit, oxygen equipment, parachute
    • Free fell for 13 seconds in ultra thin air before deploying his stabilization parachute
    • Free fall average speeds of 309 feet/second (94 meters/sec) from jump height to 17,500 feet (5,334 meters) 4 minutes 36 seconds
    • During descent speed up to 614 MPH (988 KPH)

2 world records still stand today, highest balloon ascent and longest parachute freefall.  This man, in the jet and nuclear era, used a helium balloon to reach the highest point of the atmosphere and then jumped out of it with only a parachute falling nearly 20 miles!  For those interested in reading about the story please check the below links:

Joseph Kittinger
Balloons as Forerunners of Spaceflight and Exploration
EXCELSIOR GONDOLA
Details of the balloon and launch operations
Images

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