“Everybody Wants Coconuts, but Nobody Has the Guts to Go Up There and Get Them”

(p. A32) Leaping out of a balloon gondola almost 20 miles above the New Mexico desert on a summer’s day in 1960, Joseph Kittinger seemed like something out of science fiction.

He free fell for 13 seconds, protected against air temperatures as low as minus-94 degrees by specialized clothing and a pressure suit. And then his small, stabilizer parachute opened as planned to prevent a spin that could have killed him. He free fell for another 4 minutes and 36 seconds, descending to 17,500 feet before his regular parachute opened.

Mr. Kittinger, who died on Friday [Dec. 9, 2022] in Florida at age 94, never rivaled the original Mercury 7 astronauts or the men who walked on the moon in terms of celebrity, but he was an aviation trailblazer in his own right, paving the way for America’s first manned spaceflights.

Taking part in experimental Air Force programs in the skies over New Mexico in the late 1950s and early ’60s to simulate conditions that future astronauts might face, Mr. Kittinger set records for the highest balloon flight, at 102,800 feet; the longest free fall, some 16 miles; and the fastest speed reached by a human under his own power, descending at up to 614 miles an hour.

. . .

When Joe Kittinger was 13, he once scrambled atop a 40-foot-high tree to snare some coconuts, ignoring warnings to stay put. His father recalled that venture as symbolizing the derring-do that would be his son’s life.

As the elder Mr. Kittinger put it: “Everybody wants coconuts, but nobody has the guts to go up there and get them.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Goldstein. ‘Joseph Kittinger, 94, Adventurer Who Paved Way for Astronauts, Dies.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 11, 2022): A32.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Dec. 9, 2022, and has the title “Joseph Kittinger, a Record-Setter High in the Skies, Dies at 94.”)

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