First Space Jump

Joseph Kittinger.

Pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent, and his right hand swelled to twice its normal size. Ignoring the pain, he rode the balloon up to 102,800 feet and said a short prayer — “Lord, take care of me now” — before stepping off.

Of the jumps from Excelsior, Kittinger said, “There’s no way you can visualize the speed. There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception. If you’re in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It’s the same thing if you’re free falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don’t feel it. You don’t have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.”

Here is his gondola, on display at the National Air & Space Museum:

Kittinger was shot down on May 11, 1972, just before the end of his third tour of duty [in Vietnam]… Kittinger and his wingman were chasing a MiG-21 when Kittinger’s Phantom II was hit by an air-to-air missile that damaged the fighter’s starboard wing and set the airplane on fire. Kittinger and [Weapons Systems Operator William] Reich ejected a few miles from Thai Nguyen and were soon captured and taken to the city of Hanoi.

Kittinger and Reich spent 11 months as prisoners of war (POWs) in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison. Kittinger was put through “rope torture” soon after his arrival at the POW compound and this made a lasting impression on him.



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