In the 1950s and '60s, Captain Joseph Kittinger was a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force's high altitude balloon experiments. In 2015, Col. Kittinger sat down with American Experience to discuss his role in these experiments, working with Dr. John Paul Stapp, and how the legacy of his record-breaking flights lives on.
On Meeting Dr. Stapp
Well I was stationed at Holloman Air Force Base and I was in the fighter test section. […] One day our boss, Colonel Oakley, called all the test pilots in to a room and he said, "Gentlemen, we’re going into space." And when he said that, there was a lot of laughter, because space was something that Buck Rogers [did], space was something that we were never going to do.
So everybody laughed and he said, well Dr. Stapp has a space program, in preparation for space and he’s looking for a volunteer. Well I immediately put my hand up. And I looked around and I was the only one that put my hand up. And that kind of made me wonder, what, what have I done? […] Colonel Behrens said, well Joe, go over this afternoon at one o’clock and have your interview with Dr. Stapp. So that was the first time I really met [Stapp] officially. […] He set me down on a chair and he said, do you believe in space? Well I said, I don’t know how to answer that question, doctor.
[Dr. Stapp] said, some day soon we’re going to go into space and we don’t know if man can survive weightlessness. There’s some indication there might be nausea associated with weightlessness and we need to find out if man can perform tasks in a space environment. So he said, the way we’re going to do this is […] we’re going to have an airplane with a subject in the rear cockpit. You’re going to dive down to a higher speed, pull up into a steep climb and then push on…the flight controls and get into a zero gravity parabola. […] And as we get into zero gravity, then […] the guy in the rear is being subjected to zero gravity as was I. And he said, we’ve never done this with people. They’ve done it with mice and they’ve done it with turtles, but this will be the first human exposure to zero gravity.
So with that, we started scheduling flights. […] The only airplane we had that would do this was a trainer, a T-33 trainer. So I would take off. I would get a man in the rear cockpit. Usually not a pilot, a person working for the Aero Med Lab or someone they got as a subject, but not a pilot. They didn’t want a pilot because they were looking for a person [who is] not trained for it. So I would take off, climb up and do 15 or 20 of these parabolic trajectories. […] And a few of them got sick. But then we went from [the T-33 trainer] to a faster airplane, an F-94 and then an F-89, then an F-100 and then an F-104. And each time we got more and more exposure to zero gravity.
Pilots Are Not Going to Space
I loved [the zero-gravity tests]. To me it was just nothing but fun. I just loved it. And there was a doctor [...] [who] flew in the back, and this doctor was a kind of a guy you could walk up to him […] and say, 'Airplane' and he would throw up. I mean he was that susceptible to air sickness. So I took off with this guy in the back end. And I pulled up in the first trajectory and he immediately got sick. […] He got sick every time. And he flew with me about four times. And every time he’d get sick.
So he wrote a scientific paper and the paper’s theme was we cannot go into space because as nausea is associated with zero gravity and that’s going to be the limiting factor, is man’s physiological intolerance to zero gravity. And he wrote this paper and I didn’t know about it. And finally I saw the paper and I said, well why didn’t you put in there that the pilot enjoyed it, never got sick, thought it was the most fun he’d ever had? And he said, well pilots are not going to go into space. It’s going to be doctors like me.
And I said, well we’ll see. We pilots usually show the way on these types of programs. But there was so much speculation back in those days. But this was back in ’55-’56. […] The only person that was enthusiastic was Dr. Stapp. He was a visionary. He knew we were going into space. And he was working at problems that he foresaw for the space environment and for the space flight. And so it was a, it was a delight to work for him.
The Rocket Sled
One day [Stapp] called me in and he said, Joe, we’re having an experiment and the sled’s going to be going quite fast and I need an aircraft to be flying alongside of it to take pictures of it during the sled run. And he said we cannot change the countdown so your timing has to be perfect to be there when they fire the sled. […] I said, well I’m going to have to go out and practice because in order to do this, what you want, will take a lot of practice. So I did. And I went out and I made hundreds of runs around the track, trying to be there at the exact moment. I never hit it perfect. I’d be a second early or a second late, until the day of the run.
Now the day before the sled run is when he told me that he was going to be in the sled. He never said that until the day before. Well I was really concerned because I knew how extremely dangerous this was. […] As, as far as I’m concerned, Dr. Stapp is the bravest man I ever met. And the reason was he knew exactly, physically the torture he was going to go through, but he did that to gather information that he needed, he knew that we needed for [safe] escape for aircraft. He knew how he was going to be brutally damaged when he did that acceleration. He was the bravest man I ever met in my life.
The day of the run was the only time I hit it perfect. They give a countdown, 5-4-3-2-1. When I was there, I was there exactly the right time, the right place and I had a photographer in the back end and we took pictures of Dr. Stapp and that sled run.
The Human Factor
Well we, we knew that the only way we’ll get into space was with rockets, cause there’s no aircraft that could do it. I mean we knew it had to be rocket propelled to get into space. That was, that was a known. [Stapp] was concerned with the human aspect of it. To be able to select the astronauts, train the astronauts, give them a safe environment, a life support system, communications.
[Stapp] was a, a wonderful person to work with. He had a tremendous sense of humor [...] pun humor. And you always had to listen to what he was saying because he might say something funny and if you’re not listening you’d miss it. I ended up being his pilot. I flew him all over the United States. If he wanted to go on a trip […] to any place he would call me up and I would set up the airplane and I would fly him. So we had probably a hundred flights together. And you learned a lot about a man when you’re flying him like that, around.
He was a lieutenant colonel […] I was just a lieutenant. But he was always early. Most VIPs when you fly them they made a point of being late so you’d have to wait. Dr. Stapp was always early. He would never question the weather. He would never question anything. He had complete faith in the pilot. And he was just a wonderful person to fly with because he didn’t question your decisions. […] Very intelligent, no ego whatsoever. And a person that was just interesting to talk to.
Vera was a very intelligent woman. Very adventurous. Very detail oriented. She ran the whole factory that built balloons. She was responsible for the quality control. She was a very indispensable person on the project. She made a lot of contributions by her personality and by her determination.
She had a whole team of ladies that built the balloons. About ten of them. There was another section of the company that was an engineering section. And these were the people that built the capsule. These are the people that built the life support system. So there was a mechanical division and there was a balloon division. And then there was an operations division. It was a small company on the outskirts of Minneapolis, but dedicated to the Manhigh program.
The material was a polyethylene, very thin, 2000ths of an inch thick. The bag that covers your dry cleaning is, that is more than 2mil thickness. So it’s extremely thin, very fragile […] The actual balloon was built around load tapes that carried the load. So there would be a tape here, be a tape here [and] between them like an orange peel would be the fabric. That was a gas barrier, did not carry any of the load. All the load was suspended by load tapes.
They took a long [time] to manufacture them. It took a lot of very delicate maneuvering. The women take off all their, their jewelry and anything like that could punch a hole in the fabric. But they built great balloons. […]
Vera was the one that set the standards for how they manufactured the balloons. […] She had a great crew. And the women loved her. I guess she had about ten women that built the balloons. They had great pride and when it came time for my launch, the first launch, all of them went out there to watch it, 'cause it was their balloon.
Space Guinea Pigs
I spent days in the capsule, in my pressure suit, going through the procedures, going through the capsule in preparation for the Man flight. I had to know every inch of that capsule during, to prepare for the flight. […] We were doing test flights with monkeys and with mice and with guinea pigs. […] We put enough guinea pigs, enough mice that would equal oxygen consumption of a man and the heat that he put out. And we’d send these up and see if they would survive. Well some of them did, some of them didn’t. So we […] improved the design of the capsule by using these types of creatures. They showed the way to the future. And we learned from them and made it better and safer. Just like they did on the Mercury program, they used a chimp. The first living thing to go into space. Once again, if he survived, then man can survive.
Just Another Test Flight
There's a lot of things that could go wrong. The balloon could blow up. The life support system couldn’t work. I mean there’s a lot of potential things that they could go wrong. But most everything that could go wrong, we had a backup...
You know, I’m a test pilot. When you test fly an airplane, before the flight, you know exactly what you’re going to do. The data that you want to collect. And this was just another test flight for me. This was like flying another airplane. And I had certain objectives, data I wanted to acquire. Certain things I had to do to keep the atmosphere correct. So it was just really another flight for me. And I had complete confidence in the equipment and in myself. I didn’t do it knowing that I was going to die. I did it knowing that I was going to live, that we had the procedures that we had thought of, we’d gone through a good flight test program. And to me it was just another flight. An exciting flight, a flight I’d never done before. But I was still, I was there as a test pilot.
When I got up to about oh pretty close to 90,000 feet I realized that my oxygen system was not working quite right. […] I was using too much oxygen. […] Something was wrong with the system that we had not detected 'cause we had not been in an altitude chamber. And I knew that I was going to be low on oxygen. So I called down to the ground. Now I’m starting to work on letting the gas out of the balloon so I can come down. But I had a very limited amount of ballast and you use ballast to stop the descent. I had a very small amount of ballast. So I had to be very, very careful how much gas I let out of the balloon because if I let out too much I would come down too fast and it would be dangerous for landing. So I had to be very slow and cautious.
In the meantime I’m running out of oxygen. But I think I have enough that it’s going to work. I’d done an emergency procedure to save the oxygen. They got word on the ground and they sent me a message, come down immediately. Well I’d been working for the last hour to come down. I couldn’t come down immediately because I didn’t have enough ballast to come down immediately. So you know I had been working for a long time to come down and it kind of frustrated me that they’re telling me to come down when I’ve already [told] them I was working on it.
So I thought I’d have fun, so I transmitted back on Morse code, "Come up and get me." Well, I was sitting there laughing, I thought it was really funny. But they thought I was serious and so one of the doctors said, "Well Kittinger’s got breakaway phenomena." Well the most ridiculous thing. Fighter pilots don’t get breakaway phenomena.
[Breakaway phenomena is] that you enjoy so much being in the environment that you don’t want to come down. [...] It’s something that flight surgeons dream up. But fighter pilots never have any trouble with something like that […] it’s not our vocabulary. So anyway it was really funny to me. And finally Dr. Stapp got on the radio and said, "Well Joe come down." So I went back and I said, "I’m on my way down." Well I landed in time. And I didn’t have an emergency. But we, I found problems with the air capsule, the life support system. […] So we corrected that and then Simons went up a couple months later and, and did a 38-hour flight that he could have never done had I not did the first test flight on the Manhigh I.
Sputnik was the dumbest thing the Russians ever did. Because it showed us immediately that they were ahead of us when it comes to space environment. And it was beeping as it went all around the world. It was a stimuli that really got the space program started. If it hadn’t have been for Sputnik we would have been ten years behind. Sputnik accelerated the space program, it was such a surprise to all of the scientists, all of the military that Russia had the capability to put a vehicle like that in orbit around our earth.
It had implications for intercontinental ballistic missiles, it had connotations for research with all types of different devices. It was a bugle that blew in the ears of the military and the scientists that we were behind. And that allowed us to use that and say well, we need lots of money to catch up and that was what opened the gate for looking at the future and opened the gate for finances to the scientists and to the military special program…
Suddenly people were more interested in what we were doing. Much more interested. Dr. Stapp was now not looked at as a mad scientist but as a man of vision. The atmosphere surrounding him suddenly changed, that here was a visionary and they took him from a lieutenant colonel, they promoted him to colonel and moved him to the head of the Aero Med Lab at Wright Field.
Excelsior was a program that we devised in the Aero Med Lab. We were having people bail out of airplanes at high altitudes and they were ending up spinning and we’d had some fatalities because of this and we...we...of course we were going higher and higher all the time and the higher we went, the more the spinning was. So we started a program in the Aero Med Lab and I went to Dr. Stapp and I said I have an idea how to do it. The approaches they’ve used in the past haven’t worked but I know how to do it. And Dr. Stapp said well, you go ahead and try. It’s your project.
So he gave me the tools and the opportunity. I couldn’t have done it without Dr. Stapp. He gave me the go ahead to do it.
So, we dropped these dummies to determine how fast a man would, could spin up. Well, we recorded this data on cameras and we had dummies spin as high as 200 RPM which would kill a man. So we demonstrated that there really was a problem at that altitude. So okay, so how we going to solve the problem?
We assumed right off the bat that pilots and astronauts were not skydivers, they weren’t trained to be skydivers so we had to provide a system to get them down safely that didn’t require skydiving. So this meant it was going to take some type of a drag device. So after we’d determined the problem, we looked at the solution and I had a brilliant engineer, a parachute engineer that came up with an idea of using a drogue chute, a small drogue chute that after the guy jumped out of the airplane, the drogue chute would open and give you stability down to lower altitude. […] A drogue chute was about five feet across and it was attached with a line down to the man and this was deployed, this five-foot drogue chute, it gave you enough stability to freefall. To prevent you from spinning.
The reason why you don’t open the parachute immediately which obviously would prevent spinning is that there’s... remember there’s no pressure there. It’s very low pressure. It’s very cold temperature. […] If a man opened his parachute it would take him 30, 40 minutes to get down. He’d be frozen.
The other problem is even more severe, is that at that very thin atmosphere low pressure, the parachute opens extremely fast because of the lack of pressure and it frequently blows the parachute up. It puts too many g's on the man so what you have to do, you have to freefall down below 20,000 feet. When you get below 20,000 feet, you could open your parachute, but the challenge is to get from 100,000 feet down to 20,000 feet before you could open the parachute. So you can’t open the parachute, that’s not an option. So you have to have a means of freefalling down safely to a lower altitude and that’s what we were doing. We were developing a system to get a man down from extreme high altitude.
The only reason we did it was because of Stapp. He gave us the money and the support and if I’d run into a brick wall, I’m just a captain. Captains can’t do an awful lot. If I had run into a brick wall, and I couldn’t go around it, I’d go see Dr. Stapp and he’d move the brick wall and I’d keep going.
Excelsior I Jump
Well, the first jump I made was from 76,000 feet, Excelsior I. […] I had a kit that [had] all the data in [it], the cameras, oxygen equipment, oxygen regulator, survival equipment was in this kit, and every pilot that flies has a kit strapped to his butt. […] Well, the kit got jammed in the seat. So when I got to altitude and tried to stand up, I couldn’t stand up. I was trapped in the seat and I really struggled, and I ripped this out, I ripped it out of the box it was in and finally stood up.
But I started a timer. This timer was set to go off 17 seconds after I jumped. And then open the drogue chute. But in my fighting to get out, I pulled the timer and it was running, and when I jumped out of the capsule, it only ran two and a half seconds before it opened. The drogue chute came out and lacking velocity because I was just a few feet from the capsule, lack of velocity it wandered around, the cable, and wrapped around my neck.
So here I was now free falling without any stabilization and I had watched the film many times of dummies falling, spinning and I knew it was going to be an interesting jump. So I started freefalling and skydiving and I was falling back to earth because of the weight of the kit and I started skydiving and I did pretty good. As a matter of fact, I said to myself well, you know you're going to be able to skydive all the way down. And then I suddenly started turning to the left and I stopped it, and then I started turn to the right, and I stopped it. And then I had this violent spin to the left.
Now my left wrist, I had an altimeter stop watch and I had a great interest in what altitude I was at. And I had no idea by this time, but the centrifugal force was so great I couldn’t pull my arms in. It was that great and I couldn’t stop the spin and I lost consciousness. And I came to at 10,000 feet when my reserve parachute opened. My emergency parachute opened and saved my life. I looked up and saw the emergency parachute but I was alive and I landed. And I survived the jump.
But I was really disappointed and really angry because within a few minutes we knew what had happened, what had caused this kit to get stuck in the box. And I came very close to getting killed because of the spinning. By the way, I spun 120 RPM during the spin, and that’s why I was unconscious.
[…] That jump proved why we need to do the program. That jump proved that a pilot ejecting at high altitude was probably going to spin up to very high, because I was just like a pilot who had jumped out at 78,000 feet. So that jump proved why we needed to be doing what we were doing, because we were constantly being criticized, do we really need to do this?
A Life-Saving Freefall
Dr. Stapp tells me one time that when you’re at that [high] altitude that you need your pressure suit, you should think as outside of you, you’re surrounded by arsenic. Because […] the lack of pressure will kill you just as quick as arsenic. So even though it’s beautiful, you can move your hands, you look, outside of you is death, because if something happens to your pressure suit and you lose pressure, you're going to die within a few seconds.
So every time an astronaut gets out of a spacecraft to work, he’s faced that risk if that pressure suit fails, he’s dead. It’s a hostile environment. Space is very hostile to man because you're completely dependent upon, your life is based on that pressure suit that’s keeping you pressurized. So I’m there and I’m standing up and I’m looking up at the horizon, absolutely beautiful sight, but outside is hostile and you know that. So I call down to the ground and I said, it’s a beautiful view, but it’s extremely hostile. I said man will go into space but man will never conquer space. And with that I said a prayer and I jumped. And I rolled about three or four seconds and I rolled over and I looked up at the balloon and the balloon was firing into space but actually it was me going down at a phenomenal rate.
I reached a speed of about 614 miles an hour. You have no way of knowing it because you don’t have a speedometer or there’s no trees watching, flying by. You only know it through the physics of the atmosphere as you’re freefalling body versus pressure. […] And you’re in a vacuum so there’s no flutter of the material, you’re just falling in a vacuum. You have no way of knowing it. Except your altimeter is screaming down. The drogue chute gave perfect stability all the way down and I finally opened my parachute at about 14,000 feet and it worked perfectly. When I landed, my team was there, we were elated…
We demonstrated that a man given the right protection with a drogue chute can survive an extreme high altitude ejection, bail out. And a few years later a friend of mine, Bill Weaver, was flying in an SR71 at 83,000 feet, at MACH 3.13 and the airplane came apart. And he was ripped out of the airplane and he freefell with a drogue chute, it saved his life. So our system that we developed saved that pilot’s life from 83,000 feet down to a safe environment.
Every ejection seat today in the Air Force and Air Forces all around the world, every ejection seat has a small drogue chute that we developed from the Excelsior program so it’s still being used today and that parachute has saved many, many lives and Excelsior has saved many, many lives because [of] what we did.
The Beauty of Space
…When I was on that step looking out, I was just amazed at how beautiful it was. It was absolutely beautiful, the colors, the transition from black overhead down to the horizon. It was beautiful and I was stunned with the beauty of what it was. But the same moment, I remembered Dr. Stapp talking about arsenic outside because right outside my hand was death. Because if you lost pressure, you’re dead. At the same time, I had this phenomenal, beautiful view of the horizon and the sky. So I had mixed emotions and of course then I said well, you know I’m up here for a job and I stood there probably for four or five seconds absorbing the situation I was in and thinking about it. But I didn’t stay there a long time because I had to start down. But it was a fascinating view and every aviator that’s ever been up there, every astronaut, the first thing they remark about is how beautiful it is, the dark sky overhead. It’s absolutely black in the middle of the day.
It’s a history...it’s just a small bit of history of...of how we went to space. A small history of some of the people that contributed in a small way to go into space. You know to accomplish something like going into space, it...this takes millions of little pieces of data and knowledge all put together to accomplish a task. And we had the small part of that and we had the opportunity to contribute to the future and to the welfare and to the safety of aviators so...very proud of having that opportunity.
[…] I had a great team and every program I’ve ever been on was successful because of the team that I worked with. One of my primary objectives, I always try to get people smarter than I was on my team. That always protects you if people are smarter than you are. And I did that.
But of course everything we did was for our country. Everything we did was for the Aero Med Lab or the Air Force and for the overall objective but we were all very proud of the fact that we were Americans and working on a program that would make America ahead of Russia. You know we were in a fight. We were in a war. We wanted to excel [against] the Russians. It was a space war. And by gum, we beat their butt. And we went to the moon first, phenomenal task what we accomplished. And we just beat the daylights out of the Russians. And they’re clever engineers and they had goals too, but we beat them because we had better people, we had a democracy, we had the economic basis, foundation to make it work, and we beat them.
It takes a guy like Dr. Stapp who was a visionary. Who was able to think past today and past tomorrow. He could think into the future. Very few of us have that ability to do that, to imagine what our world is going to be ten years from now, twenty years from now, what challenges will there be, what do we need to solve now. Stapp was a visionary. The only real visionary that I ever met was that man and the bravest man I ever met. The decisions that he made and we owe him so much.
I think it’s important that we recognize the pioneers that contributed to where we are today. Now, the space program is relatively close in history. We’re very close to the whole space program. But we need to remember who it was that made it possible. What significant things had to be accomplished before we could go into space and who made those accomplishments. What we did on Manhigh and Excelsior were just small, incremental bits of knowledge that were needed for the future of the space program. But it was made possible by a team of people that were working and dedicating their lives and their energy to accomplish a small task that was needed for the future of the space program.