Almost 50 years later, Kittinger still holds the world record for the highest-ever parachute jump and the longest free fall -- 4 minutes, 36 seconds. It was the third and final leap in Project Excelsior, whose aim was to test new equipment designed to help pilots, or even astronauts, survive ejections at high altitudes.
Kittinger went on to fly almost 500 combat missions in Vietnam before being shot down in 1972 and held for 11 months as a prisoner of war. He also became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon in 1984.
Now, at the age of 79, Kittinger, who retired as a colonel, is being recognized anew for his achievements. The National Air and Space Museum at Washington's Smithsonian Institution has just awarded the aviation pioneer its Lifetime Achievement Award, whose past recipients include Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.
The museum also opened a permanent exhibit of memorabilia from Kittinger's career in its famous Milestones of Flight gallery. RFE/RL correspondent Grant Podelco spoke to Kittinger by telephone from his home in the southern U.S. state of Florida, where he still flies vintage airplanes and pilots hot-air balloons.
RFE/RL: Colonel Kittinger, when you watch the film of your jump, it looks like you're jumping from space. You can see the curvature of the Earth, the blackness of space. There are differences of opinion about where space actually begins. Some people say you were the first person in space, for all intents and purposes, not Yury Gagarin. What are your thoughts on that?
Joseph Kittinger: Well, I'll tell you what. It's space as far as the body is concerned. There's a figure at 63,000 feet (19,200 meters) -- that's what they call the Armstrong Line. And the Armstrong Line is defined as the altitude where if you lose pressurization [in your suit], you die within a few seconds. So, as far as a body is concerned, space starts at 63,000 feet. So, in fact, I was very close to being in space.
As I pointed out, I only had 5 millimeters of [air] pressure, which is almost a complete vacuum. Of course, in space, there is zero pressure. But there's not an awful lot of difference between 5 millimeters and zero when you compare that we have 780 millimeters [of air pressure] where we are here on Earth. I was in space as far as the body is concerned.
RFE/RL: What was going through your mind at the moment you stepped off the gondola?
Kittinger: Well, first of all, I was a project officer. I was a project engineer. I was a project director. I selected myself to do the jump. I'd been training for a year and a half for it. I had confidence in myself, in my equipment, in my team. I was there as an engineer, I was there as a test pilot. I was there to get information. So I was extremely busy. I was completely engrossed in why I was there, in what we were trying to do.
When it was time to go, I was ready to go. It was just part of an experiment that I was a lucky member of. We were there to gather information we needed for the space program and that we needed for high-altitude escape. We were not there to set a record. We were there to gather information we needed. We had no intention of setting a record. Even though here some 48 years later, it's still a record, but we didn't do it to set a record. [The record] was just a by-product. But I was very busy, as I said. I was there as a test pilot, and when it came time to go, I was ready to go.
RFE/RL: Were there any problems during your ascent?
Kittinger: Yes, I had a pressure-suit glove failure on my right hand. It failed sometime between the time I tested it and 40,000 (12,200 meters) feet. Nobody had ever gone into space without a pressure suit or full protection. It had never been done before, so I was going into an area, I was going into a part of space, that nobody had ever done an investigation on. I took a chance that I would survive it.
I didn't tell anybody [about the glove] because I knew that if I would have told anybody the trouble I was having, they would have made me abort the flight, and I didn't want that to happen. I wanted to do it and get it out of the way because there was always the chance they might not approve me for another attempt. So I didn't tell anybody. I just went ahead and did the experiment. My hand swelled up about twice its normal size. It was painful. I couldn't use it. But we had designed the systems where everything would work even in spite of a glove being out of order, so I was able to conduct the experiment even though I didn't have use of my right hand.
RFE/RL: When you were free-falling from that height, what did it feel like? Did you feel weightless?
Kittinger: You feel kind of weightless, but you've got to remember this. The way you can discern speed is by depth perception. If you're in a steady state of falling, you have no idea that you're falling unless you can see something that tells you you're falling. And, of course, at 20 miles (31 kilometers) up, there are no trees rushing by. There's no Earth close to you.
So you really don't have any perception of falling if you know you're falling, and you're in zero gravity. You're accelerating at 32 feet (10 meters) per second until you reach terminal velocity, but the only way you know where you are is the altimeter that you have because of the tremendous speed that you're going at. But you have no way of discerning it because you have no way of depth perception to show you anything going rushing by.
RFE/RL: In the end, what did Project Excelsior accomplish?
Kittinger: The experiments that we did ended up developing an escape system from high altitude. And today that same escape system is being used some 48 years later. Every ejection seat in the world, including the Russians', has a drogue stabilization parachute on it that's deployed immediately after ejection. And that's what we developed on our program back in 1959, 1960. So what we did contribute to aviation is still being used today, and the information that we have obtained on the program in regards to walking into space was used by NASA when they started their program.
RFE/RL: After you made your record jump, you went to Vietnam and flew almost 500 combat missions. Any regrets, perhaps, that you didn't move into the space program?
Kittinger: No regrets. I was a fighter pilot and a test pilot. And the war was going in Vietnam, and being a fighter pilot, I volunteered to go there. I never regretted it at all. I was trained as a fighter pilot and that was my responsibility for the training that I had. I never had any regrets. As a matter of fact, you should never look back on your life and regret anything because when you make a decision, you make it on your best judgment. And to regret what you've done is worrying about spilt milk. ... Of course, I made the first solo balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean. And then I spent nine years barnstorming in airplanes, and I still fly airplanes. I still fly balloons. I'm still actively engaged in aviation and having a wonderful time.
RFE/RL: You've been receiving a lot of recognition lately for your feats. You've been inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame, and the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington this month opened a permanent exhibit about you and your jump.
Kittinger: Well, yes. You know, when I did this, first of all, as I said, we didn't do it to set a record. We did it to gather the information that we needed, so there wasn't an awful lot of publicity about it. And it was a very exciting period of time. If you remember back in the early '60s, NASA was starting. Boy, there were just so many exciting things happening all the time that [my jump] really just kind of went by the wayside. But what's happened now is that all of these years have gone by and all of a sudden people realize that, doggone, somebody made a jump from 20 miles up 48 years ago.
So there's been more interest in what I did back in those days than when it happened. As I said, we didn't publicize it an awful lot because we weren't there to set records. We were there to gather information we needed.
RFE/RL: Do you ever watch the film of your jump today?
Kittinger: Oh, yes. I get a thrill every time I see it. It's still an exciting event to me. The most exciting thing that happened in my life. I still get a thrill every time I watch it because I relive the event. I relive the excitement. I relive the accomplishment and I relive the feeling of pride that I had for being able to contribute to our space program and to air crews.