Joseph William Kittinger II was a former pilot and career military officer in the USAF. He is most famous for his participation in Project Man High and Project Excelsior. In 1957 as part of Man High he set an interim balloon altitude record of 29,500 m in Man High I for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C.).
For Project Excelsior (meaning "ever upward", as part of research into high altitude bailout, he made a series of three parachute jumps wearing a pressurized suit, from a helium balloon with an open gondola.
The first, from 23,287 m in November, 1959 was a near tragedy when an equipment malfunction caused him to lose consciousness, but the automatic parachute saved him (he went into a flat spin at a rotational velocity of 120 rpm, the G factor calculated at his extremities was over 22 times that of gravity, setting another record). Three weeks later he jumped again from 22,769 m. For that return jump Kittinger was awarded the Leo Stevens parachute medal.
On August 16, 1960 he made the final jump from the Excelsior III at 31,300 m. He was in freefall for 4½ minutes and reached a maximum speed of 988 km/h before opening his parachute at 5,500 m. Pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent, causing his hand to swell. He set records for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest freefall and fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere.
The jumps were made in a "rocking-chair" position, descending on his back, rather than the usual delta familiar to skydivers, because he was wearing a 60-lb "kit" on his behind and his pressure suit naturally formed that shape when inflated, a shape appropriate for sitting in an airplane cockpit.
Kittinger later served three combat tours during the Vietnam War, flying a total of 483 missions, the first two tours as an aircraft commander in A-26 Invaders. On a voluntary third tour in 1971-72, he commanded the F-4 Phantom 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron and then became vice commander of the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. Col. Kittinger was shot down during a MiG engagement on May 11, 1972, just before the end of his tour and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in the "Hanoi Hilton" prison.