LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Before NASA had its Mercury 7 astronauts, the Air Force was launching its own team into the stratosphere in balloons. Without the glamour or the budget of NASA, these early space scientists and test pilots performed extreme experiments that helped pave the way for the Mercury crew. Among them was Capt. Joseph Kittinger, who stepped from his balloon and into free fall from 103,000 feet above the ground. That's nearly 20 miles.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN EXPERIENCE")
JOSEPH KITTINGER: So I'm there, and I'm standing up and I'm looking up at the horizon, I had this phenomenal, beautiful view. I stood there for four and five seconds absorbing the situation I was in. And then I said a prayer and I jumped.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The PBS series "American Experience" tells Joseph Kittinger's story and those of the other participants in the Air Force programs in an episode called "Space Men." Joseph Kittinger, who today is Col. Kittinger, joins us from member station WUCF in Orlando, Fla. Welcome, sir, to the program.
KITTINGER: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So take me back to that moment. You're standing on the precipice, you're about to do something that no man had ever done before. Tell me, what does it look like up there? You know, most of us will never go that high.
KITTINGER: It's a beautiful view because you can see 450 miles at that altitude. But then as you look aloft about 10 or 15 degrees, the sky starts getting darker and darker. And as your eyes go up to 45 degrees or so, the sky's absolutely black. And it's daytime, so it's a very unusual situation to be in that in the daytime, it's black overhead.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's that moment before you fall, and then of course there's the fall itself. What it that like, to go at that speed, hurtling towards the earth?
KITTINGER: Well, first of all, you can't tell how fast you're going because there's nothing there to perceive, there's nothing there that you could look at to determine your velocity. But you know you're going fast as you accelerate 32 feet per second per second. And after about 20 seconds, I had reached internal velocity, which in my case was about 614 miles an hour. But it took me 4 minutes and 36 seconds to freefall down to about 14,000 feet, where I opened my main parachute. So it was - I was extremely busy. I was there as a test pilot, and I was a very, very busy person during that entire fall as I gathered data that we were there for. And the results were that when NASA started designing the Mercury project, we had already done a lot of the work that NASA would be facing. And we had answers to a lot of the questions that NASA had before they could design the Mercury program.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Colonel, you were part of this early wave of testing, and then the NASA space program comes into full effect and they're sending men into outer space. Did you feel left behind? Were you upset that this wasn't going to be a part of your future?
KITTINGER: Oh, no. As a matter of fact, I was delighted that I had had the opportunity to contribute to it. I had the option to volunteer for the program. I opted not to because I was very much involved in research that needed to be done. So I was - I turned down the opportunity because I felt that what we were doing was valuable for the future of our space program. As a matter of fact, the small 5-foot diameter parachute that we used to stabilize my freefall is still being used today in every ejection seat in the world. So what we did some 50 year - 55 years ago is still being used today.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think about space exploration now? It struck me watching this that it's lost its human component, in a way. We send these unmanned missions into deep space, but we haven't really pushed human boundaries, I think, for quite some time.
KITTINGER: I personally think that we should go back to the moon as soon as we can because there's a lot of lessons we need to learn before we can go to Mars, which should be the next great human adventure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask you a question? As you were standing on the precipice, you said a prayer. What was that prayer? What were you praying for?
KITTINGER: I said Lord, take care of me now. And then I jumped. And when the parachute opened, I said Lord, thank you for taking care of me. And it was the most vivid prayer I ever said in my life because I needed that support. There's one more part of the team that I was looking for, and I had a guardian angel that took care of me during that jump.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joseph Kittinger appears in "Space Men" Tuesday on the PBS program "American Experience." Colonel, thank you so very much for speaking with us.
KITTINGER: Thank you.
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