I Got Your 'One Giant Leap' Right Here
March 26, 2006 1:02 AM   Subscribe

"It was the quickest way down." On August 16, 1960, Joe Kittinger jumped from a helium balloon at 102,800 feet, over 19 miles up. After free-falling for four and a half minutes and reaching 614 MPH, almost breaking the sound barrier, he opened his parachute at 18,000 feet and landed safe and sound after an almost 14 minute descent. He set records for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest freefall and fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere. [more inside]
"I didn't hear a sonic boom; I didn't even hear any whooshing or whistling of the wind. But when I flipped over and looked back at my balloon, it sure was an eerie sight--the sky was black as night but I was bathed in sunshine."
posted by kirkaracha (47 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The temperature was as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit. He was wearing a pressurized suit, which broke during the ascent. The blood pooled in his right hand and temporarily paralyzed it. "The Long, Lonely Leap" is Kittinger's account of the jump for National Geographic.
"There is a hostile sky above me. Man will never conquer space. He may live in it, but he will never conquer it. The sky above
is void and very black and very hostile."
Video of the jump, Life cover photo, and a Shockwave simulation that lets you choose when to open the chute. "you probably won't survive your first attempt."
posted by kirkaracha at 1:03 AM on March 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

the Life cover photo doesn't go anywhere special for me...

but man, jumping from that distance, friggen insane. amazing.
posted by edgeways at 1:17 AM on March 26, 2006

I died.

(Awesome post, nonetheless!)
posted by darkstar at 1:18 AM on March 26, 2006

Is this not one of the most incredible survival stories ever? I mean, exploring the arctic or climbing mountains in the 19th century may be on the same level... but this is just crazy nuts.
posted by wfrgms at 1:21 AM on March 26, 2006

Holy fuck. That's insane. The lowball estimate of his speed is 614 mph.

As a side note, he also spent 11 months as a POW in Vietnam.
posted by gsteff at 1:22 AM on March 26, 2006

The Life cover image link requires the correct referrer, so I've rehosted it:

posted by secret about box at 1:43 AM on March 26, 2006

If you all will excuse me:
holy motherfucking shit.
that was awesome. I'm gonna have to find that little documentary; too bad he couldn't hold the camera more steady.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:00 AM on March 26, 2006

Now that I can see it, that Life cover is hilarious. The biggest headline says "Richard M. Nixon writes about national purpose" while the background image shows a flailing man plummeting through the air.
posted by gsteff at 2:10 AM on March 26, 2006

Excellent stuff, kirkaracha.

Wow. Damn.
posted by blacklite at 2:17 AM on March 26, 2006

Don't forget the glove!
On the subject of partial-body vacuum exposure, the results are not quite as serious. In 1960, during a high-altitude balloon parachute-jump, a partial-body vacuum exposure incident occurred when Joe Kittinger, Jr. lost pressurization in his right glove during an ascent to 103,000 ft (19.5 miles) in an unpressurized balloon gondola, Despite the depressurization, he continued the mission, and although the hand became painful and useless, after he returned to the ground, his hand returned to normal. Kittinger wrote in National Geographic (November 1960):
"At 43,000 feet I find out [what can go wrong]. My right hand does not feel normal. I examine the pressure glove; its air bladder is not inflating. The prospect of exposing the hand to the near-vacuum of peak altitude causes me some concern. From my previous experiences, I know that the hand will swell, lose most of its circulation, and cause extreme pain.... I decide to continue the ascent, without notifying ground control of my difficulty."
at 103,000 feet, he writes:
"Circulation has almost stopped in my unpressurized right hand, which feels stiff and painful."
But at the landing:
"Dick looks at the swollen hand with concern. Three hours later the swelling will have disappeared with no ill effect."
posted by asok at 2:33 AM on March 26, 2006

Incredible. A mind-boggling achievement. Great FPP kirkaracha. Amazing. Extreme parachuting taken to the max.
posted by nickyskye at 2:56 AM on March 26, 2006

Wow. kirkaracha, thank you so much.

I mean,


holy shit.

Words fail me. Sometimes, I'm struck with the thought that, you know: if I were the one facing down the million-man Persian army, what would I have done? Or: could I have jumped from 20 miles up in the air? I often think highly of myself, but am I made from the sort of stuff that it takes to brave the vacuum of space and walk on the moon? I really don't know. I pretty much doubt it.

Heroism does make a difference in the lives we live. It's a dangerous thing, sometimes, to make a cult of a hero, but small feats of insane courage like this are what make life worth living, and they give us things we'll never know. I'm glad that this one didn't pass beneath my radar, as it were. Thanks.
posted by spiderwire at 3:19 AM on March 26, 2006

The guy isn't a hero, he's a "fucking badass". The two often overlap, but they aren't synonymous.
posted by Bugbread at 3:25 AM on March 26, 2006

Well, wait a minute. Did they actually measure his velocity, or just infer it? Kittinger said he "had absolutely no sense of the speed"; the article calculates his velocity "using simple physics equations," saying "The acceleration is known since only gravity is acting and we will assume drag is small."

Wikipedia says, "The terminal velocity of a skydiver in a normal free-fall position with a closed parachute is about 195 km/h (120 Mph). This speed increases to about 320 km/h (200 Mph) if the skydiver pulls in his limbs."

The article claims three times that speed for Kittinger, 988 km/h. Granted, the atmosphere is much thinner at high altitude, but it's not negligible. For that matter, gravity's a little weaker up there too.
posted by futility closet at 4:22 AM on March 26, 2006

bugbread, you're one of my favorite MeFites, but let's not split hairs. From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913):
Heroism \Her"o*ism\ (?; 277), n. [F. h['e]ro["i]sme.]
The qualities characteristic of a hero, as courage, bravery,fortitude, unselfishness, etc.; the display of such qualities.

Heroism is the self-devotion of genius manifesting
otself in action. --Hare.

Syn: Heroism, Courage, Fortitude, Bravery, Valor,
Intrepidity, Gallantry.

Usage: Courage is generic, denoting fearlessness or defiance of danger; fortitude is passive courage, the habit of bearing up nobly under trials, danger, and sufferings; bravery is courage displayed in daring acts; valor is courage in battle or other conflicts with living opponents; intrepidity is firm courage, which shrinks not amid the most appalling dangers; gallantry is adventurous courage, dashing into the thickest of the fight. Heroism may call into exercise all these modifications of courage. It is a contempt of danger, not from ignorance or inconsiderate levity, but from a noble devotion to some great cause, and a just confidence of being able to meet danger in the spirit of such a cause. Cf. Courage.
"Fucking badass" -- and I'm loathe to say this as I'm a big fan of the more modern constructions saything that all this is a hollow euhpemeism for 'true heroism.' That it doesn't exist, that it's cult-worship -- I get what you're saying, but I think that Kittinger arguably belongs in the pantheon with Oppenheimer, Lincoln, Feynman, Newton, Fermi, Tesla, and Edison...In military, The Soviet defense of Stalingrad, the Spartans at the Hot Gates, D-Day, Bastogne, the defense of Madrid despite the failure of the West... the unlikely victory of Charles "The Hammer" Marteau at Poitiers in 732 that pinned the Moors behind the Pyrenees and set the stage for Catholic dominion over Europe and ultimately for American colonization, the million myriad variations of absord, divide, and conquer in the 'New World'....

"Fucking badass" is an abstraction -- there is, for all intents and purpsooses, nothing more badass than the first human step on to the Moon, the seminal (if sadly aborted) moment of our movement from our Type Zero civilizations. A promise that we can look beyond these crude tools and the bad odds with which we've been given -- that's heroism.

And since then, it's been about what we do and things that we stand for -- the highest heights are yet unconqured and yet there are many battles left to fight.

Yes, these men are heroes, Maybe they are also 'badasses.' Maybe Nietzsche and D'Annunzio were correct in that there are certain people who were designed to leave, and that we should trash this absurd egalitarianism and get the talented to pull their weight rather than skimming off the top of the public sphere.

Get what I mean now? Courage is the force that moves nations and people, the momentum of courage is all that confronts and bounds the corrupt nature of international capitalism. It takes courage to advance the dreams of man beyond this small limited world and the relentless logic of the slave-driver's whip. It takes courage to show your vision and use it to help others.

It takes heroism to gather all of that together and make it happen. Start that light rail system. Move out of the suburbs. Change those zoning laws. Educate people. Not as glorious, perhaps, but it means that someone has two hours a day to spend with their kids, helping with homework or coaching the football team rather than let the kids run with gangs.

Remember, it was Jean Desagaulier, whom no one's ever heard of, who brought Newton's abstract Principia to praticality, with wheels and engines and screws -- stuff that did things, like pumps and presses and paper mills -- and sparked the fist industrial revolution. Not the hero thinker. The unspoken doer. The Nikola Tesla to Thomas Edison, if you're familiar.

For us:

Mixes-used zoning lets the traditional "housewife" sell services from the front of the house during the working day. Indigenous products stay in the commuinty. That's money that can go to sports, after school adtvities, giving children something to do while parents work.

I'll drag all this kicking and screaming back to heroism -- I don't know what bugbread thinks a hero is aside from a "fucking badass," which means jack-all to me and which my definiton subsumes anyway. Let there be no mistake that I love bugbread, but 'heroism' is an empty concept waiting for relevant cultural meaning, and the comparison between Leonidas of Sparta and, say "eVil Knieval" (also a badass by many measures) is spurious at best, but in all likelihood laughable.

Our Evil Knievals make us go "whoa." Granted.

That's not the same as taking us to the stars, in my mind.

Our heroes make the world a better place -- at the right time they take on an act of personal and moral courage with a specific goal on mind, and our world is a better place as a result of their resolve: Leonidas of Sparta, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, JFK come to mind -- they had to sacrifice more than anyone could have asked for a vision. Yes, they deserve our respect.

Ponder for a moment what it would take for you to jump out of a balloon at 20 miles up, or face down the most powerful army in the world outnumbered 2000:1, and wonder if there is some ineffable fortitude of the human condition that enters in there somehow and might stiffen your spine, or whether some people were, really and truly, just born for greatness and heroism, and that's why we remember them hundreds or thousands of years later. Just think about that and how lucky these guys are to have expereienced that.
posted by spiderwire at 4:42 AM on March 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Futility -- things accelerate as they fall. And he fell WAY WAY farther than a skydiver.
posted by Toecutter at 4:44 AM on March 26, 2006

Oh -- and for what it's worth, I'm on the this-undertaking-was-heroic side of the fence.
posted by Toecutter at 4:46 AM on March 26, 2006

Futility, I thought that too, but if the altitude and time figures are accurate, then his average speed during freefall was 211 mph, so I guess the atmosphere really is just that much thinner up there (and gravity would be negligibly weaker).
posted by cillit bang at 4:50 AM on March 26, 2006

top notch post. now, who wants to do this? i mean heck, if the chute fails, it's a sweet way to go.
posted by moonbird at 4:53 AM on March 26, 2006

Oh, you didn't
posted by asok at 5:01 AM on March 26, 2006


Thanks, I stand corrected. Gotta update my internal mental dictionary now.

spiderwire writes "I don't know what bugbread thinks a hero is aside from a 'fucking badass,' which means jack-all to me and which my definiton subsumes anyway."

I was defining "hero" as "someone who knowingly puts themselves at risk in order to 'save' other people", with 'save' being kinda weakly defined. I didn't consider the search for pure knowledge (as opposed to, say, the search for a vaccine or the like) as therefore being "heroic", but "badass" (which means, I guess, intelligently taking a great risk with lots of courage, which is different from, for example, people imitating Jackass, who are stupidly taking a great risk). Either way, the "noble devotion to some great cause" part of the definition is one that I didn't know of, and one which makes this guy a hero, so it'll take a while, but I'll correct my inaccurate understanding of the word.
posted by Bugbread at 5:28 AM on March 26, 2006

Excellent post kirkaracha.

Granted, the atmosphere is much thinner at high altitude, but it's not negligible. For that matter, gravity's a little weaker up there too.

The Wikipedia entry is incomplete. The speed of sound and the aerodynamic drag that creates the "terminal" velocity vary with pressure and temperature and atmospheric composition. The atmosphere above 30.000m is pretty thin. The lack of wind rushing past him probably contributed to his lack of sense of speed.
posted by three blind mice at 5:32 AM on March 26, 2006

Oh, and regarding the (now academic) distinction between my bad definition of hero and my then-and-current definition of "badass", a badass is a person who either takes great risks a lot (i.e. unlike the "running back into a burning building to save their neighbors" situational herohood), or seldom, but in a position where they totally didn't have to.

So Batman is a (old definition) hero and badass. He takes great risks that he doesn't even have to, and saves people.
Saving-the-burning-neighbors man is a hero, but not a badass. It was herohood in a situation that wasn't chosen.
Eval Knieval is a badass, but not a hero. He puts himself at great risk, fully understanding the risk, but not for 'saving' people.

Anyway, totally pointless now that I realize I was using flawed definitions, but that was the way I was thinking.
posted by Bugbread at 5:34 AM on March 26, 2006

Here's a good explanation of the insane free fall speed -- the coolest part is that it only be a slight exageration to say he was jumping back to earth from the vacuum of space since, according to this site, "density of air at 30 km is roughly 1.5 % that at sea level and thus drag is essentially negligible."
posted by Toecutter at 5:45 AM on March 26, 2006

futility closet as far as terminal velocity goes the limit is gravitational force vs air drag. At 20 miles up the gravitational force working on you has reduced to something like 98% of what is it on the ground, while the atmospheric density has reduced to more like 5% of what it is on the ground.
Those are by no means exact numbers but it gives you an idea of the ratio of change in forces that would allow for such a speed.
posted by MrBobaFett at 5:46 AM on March 26, 2006

I have been in awe of Col. Kittinger since reading about him in grade school 30-something years ago. I can't believe there hasn't been an FPP about him by now (although a search reveals a number of comments referencing him). Great job, kirkaracha
posted by TedW at 6:29 AM on March 26, 2006


*deep breath*


*repeat for four and a half minutes*

That's just crazy fucking cool. I mean, when you JUMP out of a balloon from a height that allows you to see the CURVATURE OF THE FREAKIN' EARTH, that's so fucking cool.

Great post, kirkaracha.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:47 AM on March 26, 2006

All I can think of is that first step.

Dude's a badass!
posted by DieHipsterDie at 7:59 AM on March 26, 2006

Toecutter, did you seriously think that futility didn't know that you accelerate when you fall?

I thought the same thing futility thought, but assumed that the average speed of his fall might require that at some point he achieved a very high veolocity and that, if so, it must be because at the altitude he jumped from, the terminal velocity of a skydiver is quite high.

That doesn't mean, however, that once reaching that speed he continued it as atmosperic pressure rose as he fell. I'd guess that once he started feeling the wind, he really was feeling the wind. Additionally, that he survived the fall and braked with what I assume (perhaps wrongly) was a relatively conventional chute, he must have lost much of that velocity even by the time at which he deployed the chute.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:01 AM on March 26, 2006

XQUZYPHYR: As sweet as that would be, by the time you would have reached the surface of the earth, the diver would have slowed down to the more normal 120-200mph speed.

To clear up a few things, he would not have continually accelarated. During his initial fall, he would have accelarated until he reached his terminal velocity at 90,000' or however high he was. After that point, assuming he presented a uniform body shape, he would be slowing decelerating the remainder of the trip down as the air got thicker and thicker.

At 18,000' when he opened his parachut, he would have been going much slower than 600mph.
posted by skynxnex at 8:03 AM on March 26, 2006

Thanks for this. I actually have the National Geographic issue with photos of this and I wrote to Kittinger to see if they were inteersted in reprinting the book, The Long Longely Leap which is his first-person account of it (they didn't own the rights and I didn't want to deal with a rights-related quagmire at the time) which I'll have to scare up on interlibrary loan one of these days.
posted by jessamyn at 8:07 AM on March 26, 2006

nice post!
posted by shoepal at 8:21 AM on March 26, 2006

Thanks! I think I found out about Kittinger from the earlier comments on MetaFilter. I was surprised there hadn't been a post about him, and I've been thinking about doing one for a while. I ran across this Damn Interesting post last night, which prompted me to finally do the post. I liked this comment on the possible effects of radiation:
Radiation probably altered the size of his cojones. If you ask me, looking at his jump record, I'm convinced he carries them around in a wheel-barrel.
Kittinger joins my other bad-ass poster boy, Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier with broken ribs (he was in a plane, though) and whose face caught on fire when he had to bail out of a F-104A and the jet from the ejector seat hit him in the face.
Fortunately, when this happened, the visor on my pressure suit was busted and frayed, it cut my eye down and my eye socket filled with blood, so it didn't hurt my eyeball.
Thanks to asok for the stuff about the glove. I tried to include it in my post, but I was getting tired.

Library search for The Long, Lonely Leap.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:28 AM on March 26, 2006

The title of this post deserves some kind of award.

Amazing jump. I'd be worried that my parachute wasn't designed to withstand deploying at that much higher terminal velocity. Yes, the air is thinner but it's going a lot faster. I wouldn't want to count on my intuition that it amounted to the same thing without working out the physics.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:36 AM on March 26, 2006

Ethereal -- yeah, my comment to futilty about accelerating sounded more snarky than I meant. I think what I was getting at was that the jump from what amounted to space couldn't really be compared to a run of the mill sky dive in terms of terminal velocity because of the obvious difference in atmosphere and so it surprised me that futility questioned the reported velocity in those terms.
posted by Toecutter at 8:54 AM on March 26, 2006

He also volunteered for Viet Nam after the jump. You would think the Air Force woulda kept him on a short leash after that.
posted by PenDevil at 10:20 AM on March 26, 2006

There's a French guy who is trying to break his record. It was in the Wall St. Journal a couple of weeks ago. Here's an article about his earlier attempt.
posted by Frank Grimes at 11:07 AM on March 26, 2006

About that Shockwave simulation:

*spoiler alert*

It took a few tries, but I finally made it down without becoming library paste on the desert floor. Deployed the stabilizing chute about 90,000 feet, then the main chute at about 18,000 feet (after speed had dropped to 112).
posted by darkstar at 11:13 AM on March 26, 2006

The Darth Vader sound effect in the game is a bit unnerving.
posted by horsewithnoname at 11:38 AM on March 26, 2006

I pulled the second chute a lot lower. Didn't want the hypothetical jumper to pass out from hypoxia while drifting down... :o)

The really hard part is figuring out when to pull the stab chute. Too early, and you're not going fast enough; too late, and you've gone into a spin.
posted by pax digita at 11:38 AM on March 26, 2006

Metafilter: Too early, and you're not going fast enough; too late, and you've gone into a spin.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:20 PM on March 26, 2006

I wonder how hot his suit got as atmospheric friction slowed him down? Presumably his pressure suit was heat-resistant, but I wonder how much heat there actually was.

Also, the shockwave sim is broken for me. Is it anywhere else?
posted by Jonasio at 3:56 PM on March 26, 2006

So, if you're high enough, you won't see the earth 'coming towards' you, and you won't feel any wind... weightlessness, but in reality travelling at crazy mph. Except the radio I suppose it totally quiet for him - heavenly :)
posted by RufusW at 4:46 PM on March 26, 2006

This is a really neat story.

It also reignited the urge in me to go skydiving sometime--albeit from an order of magnitude less height. I can do without jumping in a pressure suit, thanks!
posted by Drastic at 6:42 PM on March 26, 2006

when you JUMP out of a balloon from a height that allows you to see the CURVATURE OF THE FREAKIN' EARTH

Pedantry: You can see the curvature of the Earth from practically anywhere. The common word for this is "horizon".

What's even more amazing is that this was the third such jump. On his first one, he deployed the stabilizer chute too early -- one of the possible errors in the game -- and spun out of control, losing consciousness, and only alive because his main chute was set to automatically deploy. If it hadn't done so successfully due to his spin -- well, he'd be an asterisk in the history books. And look like one, too.
posted by dhartung at 10:12 PM on March 26, 2006

I wonder how hot his suit got as atmospheric friction slowed him down? Presumably his pressure suit was heat-resistant, but I wonder how much heat there actually was.

Not much, I don't think. I've done some very rough calculations and even if all of his kinetic energy at 614 mph to heat, it's only enough to heat the surface of the suit by 84 degrees C. Of course converting all of the energy requires bringing him to a dead stop, which obviously didn't happen, and also most of it would have been absorbed by the parachute.

(NB I don't really have a clue what I'm talking about)
posted by cillit bang at 11:15 PM on March 26, 2006

A great book on the subject. Also looks like there may be a Hollywood version at some future date...
posted by zoinks at 11:15 PM on March 26, 2006

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