As the nation's man-in-space program was being developed, the Air Force wanted to know if a person could survive an emergency ejection in space conditions. So Joe Kittinger Jr. volunteered to try to find out.
On Aug. 16, 1960, after 18 months of training and preparation, he climbed into the gondola of a helium balloon in New Mexico and rode it higher than man had ever soared before - to 102,800 feet, nearly 20 miles up, at the edge of space.
Then he jumped out, plummeting for about 41/2 minutes before his parachute opened automatically. As he began his jump he recalls saying, ''Lord, take care of me now.'' At one point he was falling so fast that he became the first person to break the sound barrier with just his body.
That same Joe Kittinger, now a retired Air Force test-pilot colonel, has just won another distinction in long-distance space. He's the fellow who is being dubbed the balloon world's Lindbergh for his 84-hour flight Sept. 14-18 from Caribou, Maine, to a tree near Savona in northwestern Italy.
The 3,543.7-mile trip beat the old world record of 2,475 miles for a solo balloon flight, set by Ed Yost in his attempt to cross the Atlantic in 1976. The Kittinger distance was officially certified yesterday by the National Aeronautic Association as the longest solo balloon flight ever. Five people have been killed in balloon attempts - two of them solo flights - to cross the Atlantic.
At his home base here, where he works as the chief of operations at Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus, which offers balloon rides, banner pulling, and skywriting, balloonist Kittinger talked recently about his daredevil career.
He puts his purpose simply: ''I love adventure. I love setting out to do something and accomplishing it.'' He likes the suggestion that his trip across the Atlantic seems to have ''sparked a sense of adventure in a lot of people.''
His exploits are not without a spirit of patriotism, as well. During his third tour of duty in Vietnam, after about 1,000 hours of combat flying, he was shot down and held prisoner for 11 months. A small American flag sits on his desk in his second-floor office in a hangar here. There are several biplanes parked down below. They're the instruments of ''aerial publicity.''
But he's not reckless, he and his friends insist. For example, he spent 18 months preparing for the Atlantic solo crossing. ''I love life,'' he says, ''and that's the reason I take a lot of precautions when I do these particular adventures and programs.''
Joe Kittinger Sr. judges that his son was a ''daredevil'' when he was a boy. But it's also true that the father let the son do things many fathers might not have let their children do, such as piloting a small motorboat alone at night down the St. Johns River in Florida, a home for many alligators, when he was 12.
Ken Hargrove, a former Air Force buddy of Kittinger's who served on the ground crew for the Atlantic crossing, says his friend won a reputation as a test pilot who liked to ''push something to the edge and go right through.''
A freckle-faced man with a big mustache whose smiles and laughs are also large, Kittinger says - without any hint of bragging - that he cannot think of anything he has ever refused to do because of fear of the consequences. If something of that sort came along, he says, ''I would work hard to overcome that fear.''
Crossing the Atlantic in a gondola 15 feet long, 7 feet wide, with sides only 41/2 feet high takes considerable strength. The ''basket'' is suspended from a 10-story helium-filled balloon that can suddenly soar upward - or downward - in weather changes.
''You don't just ride in them like in the movies,'' says Bob Rice, who forecast the weather for the trip across the Atlantic. ''There's always something out there waiting to grab the balloon.''
Sudden clouds or storms can cool the helium. This causes the balloon to sink rapidly. Only by tossing ballast overboard to lighten the load - ballast is the sand or lead shot carried in the gondola for altitude adjusting - can a sudden descent be arrested.
The helium also cools at night and warms up with the sunrise, requiring daily discharge of ballast. When the ballast runs out, the flight must end. This is what happened, Kittinger says, when his ''Rosie O'Grady'' balloon came down with a crunch that broke his foot in a tree near Savona, just east of Genoa on the Gulf of Genoa, in northwestern Italy.
Given this potential for unpredictable ups and downs, balloonists must be constantly alert. Staying awake - as Charles Lindbergh had to during his first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic, in 1927 - is one of the essentials for these long trips alone. Lindbergh's flight took 33 1/2 hours; Kittinger's took approximately 84.
Kittinger says he stayed awake throughout the entire trip except for 5- to 10 -minute catnaps totaling about two hours. He warns that anything as luxurious as a 20-minute snooze at the wrong time can lead to a gondola smacking into the ocean.
''I can lie down and I can be asleep in 30 seconds,'' says Kittinger. ''I have the ability to rest anytime, anyplace.'' He says he's an advocate of 15- to 20-minute midday naps.
The Maine-to-Savona flight of the Rosie O'Grady went pretty much as planned, says Mr. Rice, an employee of Weather Services Corporation, a private forecasting company near Boston. Rice has made forecasts for 25 helium-balloon trips.
The balloon's average speed across the Atlantic was 45 miles an hour, although at one point the winds swept it along at 82 m.p.h. There is no sensation of wind, however, because the balloon moves at the same speed as the wind. But there is plenty of sensation of cold.
Kittinger's flight arched gradually between 7,000 and 17,000 feet and moved through temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees F. He inhaled oxygen most of the time. He hit snow, and at one time had as much as 100 pounds of ice on the balloon. It later melted.
To keep warm and dry, Kittinger wore multiple layers of clothing, including sweaters and thermal underwear, plus a breathable yet waterproof covering.
The wildest part of the Atlantic trip was the landing. The winds were high and all the ballast had been spent. He hit a tree at about 20 m.p.h. It had been a long, exhausting trip.
His love of flying goes back, as far as he can recall, to when he was 15, and a man working for his father took him flying. ''That did it. I said, 'Boy, this is for me.' ''
After two years at the University of Florida, he joined the Air Force, and he's been flying ever since. ''He caused us a lot of concern,'' his father says.
But Kittinger says it was his father who ''gave me the confidence to go ahead and try things.''
What's next? Kittinger says he would like to fly the first helium-balloon solo across the Pacific, from China or Korea to the East coast of the United States or Canada, perhaps as soon as next March. He's looking for investors in what he estimates will be a $500,000 flight.
That flight, he says, ''would set new world records that would be tough to beat.'' (A four-man balloon team crossed from Japan to California in 1981.)
Then what? Perhaps a round-the-world helium balloon flight. Nobody's done that, either, he says.
''I'm going to stay active as long as I can. There are a lot more adventures that I'm looking forward to.''