Joe Kittinger: The man from mission control who knew what daredevil was feeling

  • @susborne

Felix Baumgartner has the headlines but there would be no record without his boyhood hero, who was, by some measure, the first man in space. “I could see for 450 miles and up to where the sky is black,” Joe Kittinger recalls of his mission in August 1960. “It's beautiful but you know right outside your suit there's vacuum and, without protection, you're dead.”

That experience would have been vital to Baumgartner on his jump yesterday as Kittinger, whose records Baumgartner set out to beat, coolly guided the Austrian back to earth from Mission Control, a constant presence in his ear piece and in the live broadcast of the jump.

Kittinger, born in Florida in 1928, was a fighter pilot in the US Air Force when he was recruited to help test parachute systems. During his ascent to 20 miles above earth, a year before Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter into orbit, the seal of his right glove failed and his hand began to expand. “It swelled up to twice the normal size,” he recalls. “But I knew that if I told the people on the ground they'd abort, so I put it out of my mind.”

In freefall, Kittinger  hit 614mph and fell for four and a half minutes before pulling the cord. He landed in the New Mexico desert, just as his successor did last night. Within hours his hand had returned to normal: the record would be his for more than 50 years.

But fame only lasted until the outbreak of the Vietnam War. In 1972, his Phantom fighter jet was shot down over northern Vietnam. He ejected and was captured and taken to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison, where he was tortured before his release. Kittinger says he looks back at his fighting and skydiving missions as “two separate worlds,” adding: “One was based on getting knowledge, the other was about combat.”

Kittinger later returned to ballooning, completing the first solo Atlantic crossing in 1984. He lives in Orlando, Florida. He retains at least one of the four records he held until yesterday - the longest time spent in freefall - but was gleeful to see the others broken. “Couldn’t have done it better myself,” he said as he watched Baumgartner return to earth.