One of the privileges of what we do at O’Reilly is the chance to meet incredible people and share their stories with others. Last night, at a “maker day” that we held as part of the setup for this weekend’s Maker Faire, I got a chance to hear an inspiring talk by Col. Joe Kittinger, the man who holds the record for the highest skydives in history, the only man to have gone supersonic without a vehicle. Now nearly 80 years old, Col. Kittinger regaled us with tales of “the right stuff” from his days as a test pilot.
Back in 1959 and 1960, as part of Project Excelsior, Kittinger was the guinea pig for a series of tests for how to do high-altitude test pilot ejections. You see, they discovered that if you ejected from a plane that was flying at very high altitudes, the G forces from deployment of a parachute would kill you. Unfortunately, they also discovered that if you didn’t use a parachute, and did a free-fall to lower altitudes, you’d go into a high-speed spin — which would also kill you.
They eventually figured out that they could stabilize the free fall with a small drogue chute — a technique that is still used today. Kittinger rode up in a balloon, on the first flight to 74,700 feet. Due to a malfunction, the drogue cords wrapped around his neck, and he fell unconscious for 60,000 feet until his main chute deployed automatically. He survived, and three weeks later went back for another try, which succeeded.
He then went up again, this time to 102,800 feet, or almost twenty miles, and again, took what has been called “the highest step” from his balloon. There’s a great video about his adventure, called The Highest Step, shown below:
And that gets me to the title of this post. At the end of the video, when Kittinger has just landed, another man runs up, pats him affectionately on the head, and gives him the finger. What was that about, I ask? “Oh, that was Francis Beaupre, the designer of the parachute. The one-finger salute was for all the people who said we couldn’t do it. There are always going to be people around telling you you can’t do stuff. Just give them that one-finger salute and keep going.”
We all stood up and applauded. “There were giants on the earth in those days.”