CARIBOU, Maine — Before an American flew into outer space, orbited this planet or set foot on the moon, there was Joseph Kittinger with a parachute and a high-altitude, stratospheric balloon.

Kittinger is best known in Maine as the man who lifted off from a field in Caribou 25 years ago to become the first person to pilot a balloon solo across the Atlantic Ocean, but many of his earlier feats paved the way for the nation’s space program.

“It was an exciting period of time,” Kittinger said Saturday morning. “A lot was going on in aviation and space flight.”

Kittinger was in Caribou over the weekend with his wife, Sherry, several of their children and grandchildren to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his trans-Atlantic balloon flight and to take part in the city’s 150th anniversary celebrations.

“It just worked out the two events coincided,” Kittinger said.

In the 1950s Kittinger headed up the U.S. Air Force’s Project Excelsior, which was tasked with solving the problems of high-altitude bailouts.

Using a high-altitude balloon with an open gondola, Kittinger traveled to the edge of space, opened the basket’s gate and jumped out.

In 1959 he made two such jumps, first from 76,000 feet and a second from 74,700 feet.

On Aug. 16, 1960, Kittinger’s balloon, the Excelsior III, climbed to 102,800 feet before he jumped, free-falling at speeds up to 614 mph in temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

In free fall for 4½ minutes, he opened his chute at 18,000 feet and landed in the New Mexico desert, setting a record that stands to this day.

“It’s almost a complete vacuum at those altitudes,” Kittinger said. “For the body, it’s like being in space, and the Air Force needed to see what those effects were.”

For Kittinger, the effects were negligible, and soon after his safe descent he was on a plane to the West Coast and an interview with Walter Cronkite.

A photo of his free fall was the cover shot of the Aug. 29, 1960, Life magazine.

“I’ve had a very interesting life,” Kittinger said. “Early on I learned you have to set goals and work hard because I’ve never met a person who was successful who did not work hard.”

Kittinger, who still pilots balloons — he has logged more than 16,800 hours of flight time in 93 different aircraft, said the solo trans-Atlantic balloon flight was all part of his quest for adventure.

“No one had ever done it solo before,” he said. “I wanted to be that guy.”

After researching possible locations for the historic launch, Caribou, Kittinger said, fit all of the criteria.

“We looked around at a lot of places and this was a really nice community and it’s still a nice community,” Kittinger said. “We wanted to be fairly close to the Atlantic Ocean and the local chamber of commerce was very helpful.”

As a crowd watched, Kittinger’s 105,944-cubic-foot helium-filled balloon Rosie O’Grady lifted off from a small field on the outskirts of Caribou at around 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 14, 1984.

Eighty-six hours later, he landed 3,535 miles away near Savona, Italy.

Along the way he experienced temperatures down to minus 20 degrees and flew as high as 22,000 feet.

“I spent my time flying and organizing my equipment,” he said. “The [balloon’s] basket was designed to be a boat in case I had to land in the ocean.”

Kittinger said he slept about 2½ hours in 10-minute increments over the entire flight.

Kittinger served three combat tours in Vietnam and spent 11 months in captivity as a prisoner of war and earned the Silver Star Medal with oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with five oak leaf clusters, a Purple Heart, the Air Medal with 24 oak leaf clusters and the Legion of Merit.

He won the Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race four times in the 1980s and retired the trophy after three consecutive wins.

Coincidentally, Sam Canders, a native of Presque Isle, lifted off as part of a team in the Gordon Bennett this weekend.

In 1983 Kittinger set a world record flying a helium balloon from Las Vegas to New York in 72 hours and, dropping all available ballast, landed wearing only his underwear.

In April 2008 he was awarded the Smithsonian Air and Space Lifetime Achievement in Aviation Award.

Twenty-five years later, the highly decorated pilot was participating in Caribou’s 150th anniversary parade and refamiliarizing himself with the community that helped him achieve his record.

“The last time I was back here was 23 years ago,” he said. “Nothing has changed all that much and the people are still just delightful.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.