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Final jump seen from Excelsior III
|Duration||1959–1960 (three jumps)|
|Places||Stratosphere over the New Mexico desert|
|Purpose||Test of parachute for high altitude falls|
|Vehicle||Helium balloon with open gondola (the aeronaut was wearing a pressure suit)|
|Aeronaut||Joe Kittinger (Captain, USAF)|
|Records||(Last jump, 16 August 1960):
Altitude: 19.47 mi (31.33 km)
Speed: 614 mph (988 km/h)
Duration: 13m 45s
Project Excelsior was a series of parachute jumps made by Colonel (then Captain) Joseph Kittinger of the United States Air Force in 1959 and 1960 from helium balloons in the stratosphere. The purpose was to test the Beaupre multi-stage parachute system intended to be used by pilots ejecting from high altitude. In one of these jumps Kittinger set world records for the highest parachute jump, the longest parachute drogue fall and the fastest speed by a human through the atmosphere.
As jet planes flew higher and faster in the 1950s, the USAF became increasingly worried about the safety of flight crews who had to eject at high altitude. Tests in Operation High Dive with dummies had shown that a body in free-fall at high altitude would often go into a flat spin at a rate of up to 200 revolutions per minute. This would be potentially fatal.
Project Excelsior was initiated in 1958 to design a parachute system that would allow a safe, controlled descent after a high-altitude ejection. Francis Beaupre, a technician at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, devised a multi-stage parachute system to facilitate manned tests. This consisted of a small 6 ft (2 m) stabilizer or "drogue" parachute, designed to prevent uncontrolled spinning at high altitudes, and a 28 ft (8.5 m) main parachute that deployed at a lower altitude. The system included timers and altitude sensors that automatically deployed both parachutes at the correct points in the descent, even if the parachutist were unconscious or disabled.
To test the parachute system, staff at Wright Field built a 200 ft (61 m) high helium balloon with a capacity of nearly 3,000,000 cubic feet (85,000 m3) that could lift an open gondola and test pilot into the stratosphere. Kittinger, who was test director for the project, made three ascents and test jumps. As the gondola was unpressurized, Kittinger had to wear a full pressure suit during these tests, plus additional layers of clothing to protect him from the extreme cold at high altitude. Together with the parachute system, this almost doubled his weight.
Test jumps 
The first test, Excelsior I, was made on November 16, 1959. Kittinger ascended in the gondola and jumped from an altitude of 76,400 feet (23,287 m) . In this first test, the stabilizer parachute was deployed too soon, catching Kittinger around the neck and causing him to spin at 120 revolutions per minute. This caused Kittinger to lose consciousness, but his life was saved by his main parachute which opened automatically at a height of 10,000 feet (3,048 m).
Despite this near-disaster on the first test, Kittinger went ahead with another test only three weeks later. The second test, Excelsior II, was made on December 11, 1959. This time, Kittinger jumped from an altitude of 74,700 feet (22,769 m) and descended in free-fall for 55,000 feet (16,764 m) before opening his main parachute.
The third and final test, Excelsior III, was made on August 16, 1960. During the ascent, the pressure seal in Kittinger's right glove failed, and he began to experience severe pain in his right hand from the exposure of his hand to the extreme low pressure. (See Effects of vacuum on humans.) He decided not to inform the ground crew about this, in case they should decide to abort the test. Despite temporarily losing the use of his right hand, he continued with the ascent, climbing to an altitude of 102,800 feet (31,333 m). The ascent took one hour and 31 minutes and broke the previous manned balloon altitude record of 101,516 feet (30,942 m), which was set by Major David Simons as part of Project Manhigh in 1957. Kittinger stayed at peak altitude for 12 minutes, waiting for the balloon to drift over the landing target area. He then stepped out of the gondola to begin his descent.
The small stabilizer parachute deployed successfully and Kittinger fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, setting a long-standing world record for the longest free-fall. During the descent, Kittinger experienced temperatures as low as −94 °F (−70 °C). In the free-fall stage, he reached a top speed of 614 miles per hour (988 km/h). At an altitude of 17,500 feet (5,334 m), Kittinger opened his main parachute and landed safely in the New Mexico desert. The whole descent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds and set a world record for the highest parachute jump. Kittinger held the world record until October 14, 2012 when Felix Baumgartner jumped from 128,097 feet (39,044 m).
An hour and thirty-one minutes after launch, my pressure altimeter halts at 103,300 feet. At ground control the radar altimeters also have stopped-on readings of 102,800 feet, the figure that we later agree upon as the more reliable. It is 7 o'clock in the morning, and I have reached float altitude ... Though my stabilization chute opens at 96,000 feet, I accelerate for 6,000 feet more before hitting a peak of 614 miles an hour, nine-tenths the speed of sound at my altitude.
A plaque attached below the open door of the Excelsior III gondola read, "This is the highest step in the world".
Kittinger's efforts during Project Excelsior proved that it was possible for an air crew to descend safely after ejecting at high altitudes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Kittinger the C.B. Harmon Trophy for his work on Excelsior. Kittinger also received an oak leaf cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross, the J.J. Jeffries Award, the A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, and the Wingfoot Lighter-Than-Air Society Achievement Award.
See also 
- Le Grand Saut
- Auguste Piccard, Swiss physicist who in 1931 went to 15,785 m (51,775 ft) in a helium balloon in a spherical gondola.
- Space diving
- Red Bull Stratos, a 2012 mission advised by Kittinger, with Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner setting a new record
- Timothy R. Gaffney (2002-08-12). "Kittinger's long, lonely leap". Dayton Daily News. p. B1.
- Jeffrey S. Hampton (2003-12-15). "'Hero of Aviation' speaks about record-setting free fall". The Virginian-Pilot. p. Y1.
- Tim Friend (1998-08-18). "Out of thin air His free fall from 32 km (20 mi) put NASA on firm footing". USA Today. p. 1D.
- Joseph W. Kittinger (December 1960). "The Long, Lonely Leap". National Geographic. p. 854–873.
- Burkhard Bilger, Our Far-Flung Correspondents, "Falling," The New Yorker, August 13, 2007, p. 58
- Ryan, Craig (1995). The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-732-5.
Further reading 
- Kittinger, Joseph (1961). The Long, Lonely Leap. New York: E. P. Dutton. (Joseph W. Kittinger's autobiography)
- "Joseph W. Kittinger and the Highest Step in the World". Greg Kennedy. March 17, 2010. On Stratocat website
- National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Excelsior page
- Details of the Excelsior I flight
- Details of the Excelsior II flight
- Details of the Excelsior III flight -The Big Jump-
- Interview with Joseph Kittinger
- The Highest Step - video
- Col. Joe Kittinger speaks at the Kircher Society Meeting - Video Pt1 - featuring an extended Project Excelsior Video
- Col. Joe Kittinger speaks at the Kircher Society Meeting - Video Pt2
- Col. Joe Kittinger speaks at the Kircher Society Meeting - Video Pt3
- Excelsior III - the Long, Lonely Leap painting by Stuart Brown
- The short film Balloons is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]