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January 5, 2006

Kittinger recalls 'giant leap' from balloon

ENID, Okla. — On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took “one small step” off lunar module Eagle onto the surface of the moon, becoming the first human being to set foot on another celestial body.

But if Joe Kittinger had not made one “giant leap” Aug. 16, 1960, Armstrong’s feat might not have come about.

On that day Kittinger, an Air Force captain, rode a 4 1/2-foot open gondola dangling under a helium balloon to a height of 102,800 feet above the earth (almost 19.5 miles), a record that still stands today.

Kittinger did not ride the balloon back down, however. He jumped from the gondola, free falling for four minutes and 37 seconds before his parachute opened, then riding his chute for another eight minutes to a safe landing on the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

“When I jumped off, I rolled over and looked up at that balloon,” said Kittinger. “I thought, ‘This is amazing, that balloon is rocketing up into space.’ Actually it was me going down and the balloon was staying right there.”

Kittinger was in Enid Monday and Tuesday as a guest of Vance Air Force Base. Monday he was featured speaker for the 71st Flying Training Wing’s safety day.

Kittinger, who joined the Air Force in 1949, was a test pilot for NATO and the Air Force before being recruited by aerospace medicine pioneer Col. John Paul Stapp for Project Man High, which would test whether humans were physically and psychologically capable of spending time in space.

Kittinger’s Man High flight took him to 96,000 feet. He then became part of Project Excelsior, which studied the use of a parachute to escape from a space capsule or high-altitude aircraft.

Standing on the threshold of the gondola, Kittinger said, was the experience of a lifetime.

“Standing up in that door and looking out at the world 20 miles away,” said Kittinger, “I could see 400 miles. That was an exotic place to look at the world. But when it was time to go, I was ready to go. It was the quickest way down.”

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