Friday, August 5, 2011

"Come Up and Get Me: An Autobiography of Colonel Joe Kittinger," by Joe Kittinger and Craig Ryan, Foreword by Neil Armstrong (University of New Mexico Press)

One of the most overused and misused words in the English language (and doubtless others as well) are “hero” (“a remarkably brave person”) and its related term “heroic” (“courageous; showing great bravery, courage, or determination”).

Thus, Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War II, is justly dubbed a hero.  But, we are told, so is Bill Gates, because of his charitable contributions.  Whatever merit those cash gifts may have, they do not make him a hero nor his contributions, no matter how significant, heroic.

Improper use of the terms “heroic” and “heroism” devalues those men and women who are truly heroes and diminishes their heroic acts.  This is, at minimum, unjust.

For example, how could characterizing Gates as a hero and his monetary gifts as heroic compare with the achievements of former Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger (a friend of mine), whose publisher says this about him:

A few years after his release from a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp in 1973 Colonel Joseph Kittinger retired from the Air Force. Restless and unchallenged, he turned to ballooning, a life-long passion as well as a constant diversion for his imagination during his imprisonment. His primary goal was a solitary circumnavigation of the globe, and in its pursuit he set several ballooning distance records, including the first solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1984.

But the aeronautical feats that first made him an American hero had occurred a quarter of a century earlier. By the time Kittinger was shot down in Vietnam in 1972, his Air Force career was already legendary. He had made a name for himself at Holloman Air Force base near Alamagordo, New Mexico, as a test pilot who helped demonstrate that egress survival for pilots at high altitudes was possible in emergency situations.

Ironically, Kittinger and his pre-astronaut colleagues would help propel Americans into space using the world's oldest flying machine—the balloon. Kittinger's work on Project Excelsior—which involved daring high-altitude bailout tests—earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross long before he earned a collection of medals in Vietnam.

Despite the many accolades, Kittinger's proudest moment remains his [August 16, 1960] free fall from 102,800 feet during which he achieved a speed of 614 miles per hour. In this long-awaited autobiography, Kittinger joins author Craig Ryan to document an astonishing career.

An astonishing career, indeed!

Kittinger, one of the few authentic pre-astronauts, begins his memoir as he stands, literally, on the edge of one of man’s most dangerous explorations—  comparable to Magellan’s circumnavigation of the earth, Lindberg’s solo flight across the Atlantic, the voyage of Apollo 11 to the moon.

With barely a minute left, I read the gauges on my instrument panel one last time.  I disconnect my onboard oxygen supply and begin to breathe from the bailout bottle in my seat pack.  I take a breath and hold it.  This is no fantasy.  I am really here.  I pull myself up and grab the edges of the doorway.  I can feel my heart hammering like a machine.

I activate the cameras.

I release the antenna.

Lord, take care of me now.

I jump from space.   

Colonel Kittinger’s leap into the literally unknown would, by itself, be more than sufficient to recognize him as a hero, but his career is studded with other heroic achievements: pushing aircraft beyond their limits in zero-gravity tests; flying a balloon to sustained heights no human had ever before reached; designing and testing high-altitude ejection systems; surviving his shoot-down in the North Vietnam skies; enduring as a brutalized prisoner of war; crossing the Atlantic Ocean solo in a balloon.

Yet, in the end, the reader’s thoughts return to fifty-one years ago, as a balloon hovers 102,800 feet above the New Mexico desert.  A lone man stands, looking down into the void.  

To bridge that distance between space and earth, there is the courage of one human explorer, the first man who will leave earth’s atmosphere for any significant duration.  In moments, Joe Kittinger would “become the first astronaut; the first man in space.”

And a true American hero.