April 3, 2008 — -- Joseph Kittinger's name may not be familiar to most, but the fearless daredevil helped pioneer the U.S. space program while setting multiple records in ballooning and parachuting, including a free-fall parachute jump from space, — 102,800 feet— that still stands.
"We were the pioneer part of the space program. We were the pre-astronauts," said Kittinger, whom the National Air and Space Museum will recognize with its highest honor later today.
The 79-year-old did more than take a giant step for mankind. From 20 miles above the earth in a helium balloon, Kittinger took the highest sky dive ever.
"I said a prayer. 'Lord take care of me now,' and I jumped out," Kittinger said. "That was the most fervent prayer I ever said in my life."
His 1960 feat remains the longest free fall in history and gives Kittinger the distinction of being the fastest human that has ever traveled without an engine. Kittinger's free-fall lasted more than four minutes and he traveled 700 miles per hour — the speed of sound.
But the retired air force Colonel's jump did not occur exactly as planned. As Kittinger went up, he noticed heavier than expected cloud cover and he was unable to see the ground where he was supposed to land.
"I knew it was there. I knew the ground was there. I knew that planet Earth was right beneath me," he said. "I came in a quarter of a mile from where I was suppose to land."
Thirteen minutes and 45 seconds after his leap, a thankful Kittinger was back on earth.
"When my parachute opened up I said, 'Lord thank you very much for that jump,'" he said. "There was a lot of relief in all of our minds, I was elated, I was as happy as could be."
Part of his safety anxieties may have derived from a close call he had the year before. On Nov. 16, 1959, Kittinger jumped from 76,000 feet and parachuted to the desert floor in New Mexico, according to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. The jump nearly killed him because his small parachute caught around his neck and caused him to spiral out of control.
Kittinger lost consciousness and rapidly tumbled toward the ground. His emergency parachute, which opened automatically at 10,000 feet, slowed his descent and saved his life.
The near-death experience didn't ebb the Orlando, Fla. native's love of aviation, which started as a boy. He became fascinated with planes at a young age when he saw a Ford Trimotor, a classic airplane from the 1920s and 1930s, at a nearby airport. He was hooked and by the time he was 17 he soloed in a Piper Cub, a light aircraft.
Kittinger continued to parachute and jump until funding for his program dried up and he was sent to Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force in 1978 and began ballooning around the country and entering balloon competitions.
During his career, Kittinger has piloted 78 different types of aircraft and received numerous military and civilian awards and decorations. His lifetime achievement award from the museum caps a stellar career.