Project Excelsior

Project Excelsior was a series of high-altitude parachute jumps made by Captain (later Colonel) Joseph Kittinger of the United States Air Force in 1959 and 1960 to test the Beaupre multi-stage parachute system. In one of these jumps Kittinger set world records for the highest parachute jump, the longest parachute freefall and the fastest freefall, all of which still stand.



As jet planes flew higher and faster in the 1950s, the USAF became increasingly worried about the safety of flight crew who had to eject at high altitude. Tests 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 Field, Ohio, devised a multi-stage parachute system to facilitate manned tests. This consisted of a small Convert|6|ft|m|0 stabilizer parachute designed to prevent uncontrolled spinning at high altitudes and a Convert|28|ft|m|1|abbr=on|abbr=on main parachute that deployed at a lower altitude. The system included timers and altitude sensors that automatically deployed both parachutes at the correct point in the descent.

To test the parachute system, staff at Wright Field built a Convert|200|ft|m|0|abbr=on high helium balloon with a capacity of nearly 3 million 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 and the parachute system itself. 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 23,287 m (76,400 ft).cite news |author=Timothy R. Gaffney |title=Kittinger's long, lonely leap |work=Dayton Daily News |page=B1 |date=2002-08-12] In this first test, the stabilizer chute 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 chute which opened automatically at a height of 3,048 m (10,000 ft).

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 22,769 m (74,700 ft) and descended in free-fall for 16,764 m (55,000 ft) before opening his main chute.

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. (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 31,333 m (102,800 ft).cite news |author=Jeffrey S. Hampton |title='Hero of Aviation' speaks about record-setting free fall |work=The Virginian-Pilot |page=Y1 |date=2003-12-15] The ascent took one hour and 31 minutes and broke the previous manned balloon altitude record of 30,942 m (101,516 ft), 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 chute deployed successfully and Kittinger fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, setting a still-standing world record for the longest parachute free-fall (although some authorities do not count this as a free-fall record because of the use of the stabilizer chute). At an altitude of 5,334 m (17500 ft), Kittinger opened his main chute and landed safely in the New Mexico desert. The whole descent took 13 minutes and 45 secondscite news |author=Tim Friend |title=Out of thin air His free fall from 32 km (20 mi) put NASA on firm footing |work=USA Today |page=1D |date=1998-08-18] and set the current world record for the highest parachute jump. During the descent, Kittinger experienced temperatures as low as convert|-94|°F|°C|0. In the free-fall stage, he reached a top speed of 988 km/h (614 mph).

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 [cite news| author=Joseph W. Kittinger |title=The Long, Lonely Leap| work=National Geographic |date=December 1960 |page=854-873] .

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. For his work on Excelsior, President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Kittinger the C.B Harmon Trophy. He also received an oak leaf cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross, the J.J. Jeffries Award, the Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, and the Wingfoot Lighter-Than-Air Society Achievement Award.

Previous helium balloon projects

Already in 1931 the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard made flights in a pressurized gondola to an altitude of 15,785 m (51,775 ft). At this height he was the first one to see the curvature of the earth with his bare eyes. He ultimately made a total of 27 balloon flights reaching a record altitude of 23,000 m (72,177 ft).

ee also

*Operation High Dive
*Project Manhigh
*Le Grand Saut
* Auguste Piccard Swiss physicist who in 1931 went to 15,785 m (51,775 ft) in a helium ballon in a spherical gondola.

Notes and references

* [ Burkhard Bilger, Our Far-Flung Correspondents, "Falling," The New Yorker, August 13, 2007, p. 58]
*Cite book |first=Craig |last=Ryan |title=The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space |publisher=Naval Institute Press |year=1995 |isbn=1-55750-732-5

External links

* [ National Museum of the US 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]
* [ Boards of Canada "Dayvan Cowboy" music video, featuring footage of one of the jumps]
* [ 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]

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