Colonel Joe Kittinger died this weekend at the age of 94. While he is best known for his involvement with Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking high-altitude parachute jump from a high-altitude balloon, Kittinger’s lifetime achievements before and after that 1960 jump are remarkable.
A retired United States Air Force officer and test pilot, Kittinger was perhaps best known for his record-breaking high-altitude parachute jump from 102,800 feet (31,300 meters) in 1960. That record would hold more than 50 years.
He was part of the U.S. Air Force’s Project Excelsior, which was designed to study the effects of high-altitude jumps on the human body. Kittinger’s jump set a record for the highest parachute jump that stood for 52 years until it was broken by Baumgartner in 2012 and which was later broken by Alan Eustace.
But even before his record jump in 1960, and certainly afterward, Baumgartner led an insanely remarkable life. During three tours of duty in Vietnam, he amassed more than 400 missions, flying Douglas A-26 Invaders in the early years of the war and, later, McDonnell Douglas F-4s. It was during a dogfight in the F-4 with a flight of MiGs in 1972 that he was shot down near Hanoi. He and his navigator ejected and were captured shortly after they landed. Kittinger, who was awarded the rank of colonel by the Air Force while he was a POW, spent nearly a year in the North Vietnamese prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton before the United States was able to negotiate his (and other POWs’) release.
Kittinger is thought by some to have been the first human in space, a year before the Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became recognized for the feat in his flight aboard Vostok 1. And Kittinger is widely believed to have been the first person to see the curvature of the Earth during his 1960 record-setting balloon flight and subsequent parachute jump. After he was released from captivity, he returned to flying F-4s and commanded a flight squadron in the U.K. for a time.