formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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October 16, 2012 The Highest Step in the World

The Liberty Gazette
October 16, 2012
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Imagine this moment in time when a man named Joe (who is not your ordinary Joe), sporting the latest “moon suit”, so high up in the atmosphere he can see the curvature of the earth, steps out of the gondola of a balloon, leaving behind the placard claiming, “This is the Highest Step in the World,” and begins falling, tumbling, down, down, down.

Linda: He’s not even your ordinary skydiver; he’s Captain Joseph Kittinger of the USAF, and in that moment, August 16, 1960, he stepped out, then plunged a long way down into history. Why, you ask? Well, maybe he was like me when I was little. The house where we lived had this beautiful curving brick wall that came around the front porch of the house like a hug. That lovely wall that always welcomed me home, with its stately lampposts guiding my way through the opening, its bricks softened by shrubbery Dad maintained himself, seemed so high above the world when I was, say three, or five. I’d climb up on it, stand at one corner, higher than the shrubs, surely almost higher than the house itself, and convince myself each time that I could do it, that I could jump over those huge shrubs – and survive it. Even when I didn’t land on my feet the impact brought a sense of victory, of meeting the challenge head-on and winning over fear, of owning that jump. I wonder if Captain Kittinger felt like that after his third and highest jump, when he stepped forward 102,800’ (about 19 ½ miles) above the earth, risking his life for the development of space suits and high altitude escape equipment the astronauts would need to venture into space.

Mike: His free fall, a bit faster than Linda’s hurdle over the bushes, accelerated to an unprecedented 625.2 miles per hour at the 90,000’ mark (just under the sound barrier), decelerating as he fell into thicker air. Four and a half minutes after stepping from the platform of Excelsior III, and down to 18,000’ above earth, the main parachute deployed slowing Joe for his landing on New Mexico’s desert floor. It lasted 13 minutes and 45 seconds, and then Joe went on to fly combat aircraft in Vietnam, staying for awhile in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.

84-year-old Kittinger has held the record for the highest, fastest and longest skydive in history for 52 years, but he has worked hard to change that. His would be the only voice 43-year-old Felix Baumgartner would hear, coaching him as he jumped from 120,000 feet – 23 miles above the earth. Just like his coach, Felix is testing equipment for the next generation of space suits as well as survival mechanisms that provide a back-up for astronauts in the event they have to escape their spacecraft at high altitude and re-enter earth’s atmosphere. Joe says he is happy to see someone finally break his record.

Linda: Ah, to own the title, be the victor, and savor the sweet success of meeting the challenge head-on. I bet he jumped off brick walls when he was a kid, too.

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