September, 1960 America entered the space race with a fantastic catch in the sky accomplished by a new space hero. Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger jumped from an open balloon gondola at 102,800 feet above earth. This was the highest man has ever ventured into space in an unpowered flight. His falling body is thought to have broken the sound barrier. For 16 miles he plummeted from space toward earth before his chute opened. This is the longest free fall in history, truly making this man our first spaceman. Cameras in the gondola snapped some of the most exciting pictures of a man’s daring. Wish I had access to them.
Most of the public today never heard this man’s name, but I was privileged to meet him one windy summer day at Drake Field in Fayetteville when I was sent to write a story about him for the Washington County Observer. Not only did we talk he took me up into the wild blue yonder for the ride of a lifetime in his barnstorming plane. My husband told him he couldn’t scare me. But he was gentle only doing a couple of maneuvers that had my toes curled against the floor. I was fortunate that day to live the words of the poem touching the face of God with this amazing man.
He later spoke of that space experience, saying he accomplished it in a tin can with duct tape and plastic bags. Kittinger passed out during the leap, but recovered to make a stupendous landing and enter the pages of space history forever.
The highlight of his life, Joe will never forget that historical space experience. He’ll always remember that announcement, “Three minutes to jump, Joe.” He talks about it, saying “I was ready to go. For about an hour the balloon rose from 50,000 to 102,800 feet above sea level.” At that point he was exposed to an environment that required the protection of a pressure suit and helmet. The fear of their failure was always present. If either should break death was only two minutes away.
He said, “…there in the eerie silence of space, I knew that my life depended entirely upon my equipment, my own actions, and the presence of God.”
During his military career he spent 11 months as a POW in Viet Nam and after retirement, not willing to keep his feet on the ground, he flew around the countryside giving barnstorming exhibitions and taking those brave enough to climb aboard his 1930 New Standard D-25 bi-plane high into the skies.
One morning I walked with Joe across the tarmac at Drake Field and he held onto my hand while I climbed into the nose seat of his plane. Taking pictures in those days was not so easy as aiming a cell phone, but they took the accompanying one of me aboard that plane with a sort of gripping-my- lips pose which looks a bit like I was holding back a scream. A short race along the runway, my stomach clenched and we were airborne. A shout of wild joy burst from me as we climbed into the sky. Once high above Fayetteville he rolled over onto one wing giving me an sideways look at the ground far below. A few exciting passes over the seven hills of Fayetteville and we landed. I will never forget the flight or visiting with this man who had once sailed free of the bonds of earth.
Austrian Felix Baumgartner broke Joe’s record in October 2012 and Kittinger was his capcom” (capsule communications chief)—mission control’s primary point of radio contact with Baumgartner throughout his ascent. Joe celebrated his 90th birthday July 27, 2018.
Read more about Kittinger’s leap from the edge of space here. https://www.history.com/news/joe-kittingers-death-defying-leap-from-the-edge-of-space