Sunday, April 4, 2010

Project Excelsior

Project Excelsior was a series of high-altitude parachute jumps made by Colonel (then Captain) 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 drogue fall and the fastest speed by a human through the atmosphere, all of which still stand.

To test the parachute system, staff at Wright Field built a 200 ft (61 m) 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.

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).[2] The ascent took one hour and 31 minutes and broke the previous manned balloon altitude record. 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. Kittinger fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, setting a still-standing world record for the longest parachute 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 988 km/h (614 mph).