National Geographic : 1957 Feb
To 76,000 Feet by Strato-Lab Balloon 269 Two Navy Meteorologists Reach Record Height with a Light Gasbag of Transparent Plastic and Survive a Fall of 14 3 Miles BY LT. COMDRS. MALCOLM D. Ross, USNR, AND M. LEE LEWIS, USN When Commanders Ross and Lewis were preparing to invade the stratosphere, they found that the detailed reports of the record-breaking National Geographic Society-U. S. Army Air Corps flight of nearly 21 years before were still among the best sources of data on the upper atmosphere. In appreciationand in recognition of The Society's long and active interest in the stratosphere, they have contributed this narrative of their historic flight.-The Editor. SLOWLY but with reassuring steadiness the pointer of our sensitive altimeter climbed past the 72,200-foot mark, continued its unhurried sweep to 72,400, and began a resolute assault upon still higher numerals on the dial. Within our aluminum gondola, the Strato Lab, high in the near-vacuum of the upper atmosphere above South Dakota, we gazed at the instrument and groped for suitable words. The world's record altitude for a manned balloon had just been topped. Lee finally broke the silence. "A lot of very fine people have passed this way," he murmured. The tribute was a subtle one. Indeed, in the figurative sense, a great many people had passed our way-all the hundreds who had helped earlier balloonists achieve their goals and the hundreds more who had helped us. New Vehicle for Stratosphere Explorers In those next few fleeting minutes last No vember 8, our altimeter-confirmed by ground radar-registered 76,000 feet, thus surpass ing the record of 72,395 feet, about 1334 miles, established by Capts. Albert W. Stevens and Orvil A. Anderson in the Explorer II. Like them, we took off from the hill-sheltered Stratobowl, 12 miles southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota. Our own ascent very nearly coincided with the 21st anniversary of their flight, made November 11, 1935, under the joint sponsorship of the U. S. Army Air Corps and the National Geographic Society.* But far more important than a record is the fact that the feasibility of penetrating the stratosphere with a light, relatively in expensive man-carrying balloon of poly ethylene plastic has now been demonstrated. This, we believe, marks a new era of explo ration of the great frontier just a few miles above our heads-a region now being invaded more and more by rocket planes and missiles, and soon by man-made satellites. For more than nine years light plastic bal loons have been carrying a variety of instru ments high into the stratosphere in the Navy scientific program known as Skyhook. Mean while, some of us decided that this gossamer thin, transparent material had been developed to such a point that it could be trusted to carry human observers as well. "Hope to Go Higher ... Stay Longer" Our flight to 76,000 feet proved that this confidence is justified-even though a mal functioning automatic valve released a burst of gas when we reached our ceiling and brought us down a lot sooner (and faster!) than we had planned. This year we hope to go higher and stay longer. During a portion of that 14' 3 -mile plunge to earth, our gondola dropped at a rate of about 4,000 feet per minute, and we had little or no control over the balloon. By dumping all our 300 pounds of ballast and by ruthlessly tossing overboard some 200 pounds of instruments and equipment, we slowed the descent enough to make a safe landing in a sandy basin 18 miles south west of Kennedy, Nebraska. * For full accounts of the Explorer II flight, see, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Man's Farthest Aloft," January, 1936, and "Scientific Re sults of the World-Record Stratosphere Flight," May, 1936, both by Capt. Albert W. Stevens. See also "National Geographic Society-U. S. Army Air Corps Stratosphere Flight of 1935 in the Balloon Explorer II" (Contributed Technical Papers, Stratosphere Series, No. 2), published in 1936 by National Geo graphic Society, Washington, D. C. For a brief assess ment of scientific results, see "Twentieth Anniversary of the Epoch-making Stratosphere Flight by Explorer II," NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1955. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Space Satellites, Tools of Earth Research," by Heinz Haber, April, 1956; and "Aviation Medicine on the Threshold of Space," by Allan C. Fisher, Jr., August, 1955.