National Geographic : 1961 Nov
HS EKTACHROME C NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY two hours with the world displayed before us. Our aluminum cage offered little protection from the deadly atmospheric conditions around us. We depended entirely on our space suits and clear plastic face plates. Any fail ure of these would have meant sudden death. We would almost literally have exploded. What we did not know was that when death would come to one of us, it was not to be from the hazards of space but from the almost forgotten peril of water that lay like a blue counterpane 21 /2 miles below. Testing Suits for Space Journeys Flight surgeon Vic Prather and I had good reason for going on the most difficult and dan gerous high-altitude balloon flight ever un dertaken. Navy aircraft pilots, flying increas ingly high, must know the precise capabilities of their suits. Furthermore, a suit that can protect a man above 99 percent of the earth's atmosphere is a major step toward clothing that can protect a man on rocket trips to the moon, Mars, or Venus. Our flight provided the longest, toughest test of space suits ever made under actual operating conditions. 672 The Office of Naval Research farsightedly conceived the Strato-Lab program in 1954 and began sending up progressively higher hal loon flights. On November 8, 1956, the late It. Comdr. M. Lee Lewis and I reached 76,000 feet, higher than balloonists had been before. Later we soared to 85,700 feet, and other balloonists soon topped that figure. The highest manned balloon altitude mark until now was set by Capt. Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., of the U. S. Air Force, who parachuted from 102,800 feet on August 16, 1960.* For our flight, Winzen Research Inc., of Minneapolis, Minnesota, designed a unique gondola-open, but with Venetian blinds to control temperature. The company already had a suitable balloon, the biggest successful ly tested to that time. The 10,000,000-cubic * NATIONAL. GEOGRAPHIC published the pilot.' own narratives of these historic flights: "To 7,(00)()) Feet by Strato-l.ab Balloon," by Malcolm 1). Ross and M. Lee lewi , February, 1 57; and "The Long, Lonely Leap, by Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., December. 06 A (luarter century ago, the National (Geographic Society and '. S. Army Air Corps sent aloft the famed Explorer strato sphere balloons,. reaching 72,. )5 feet in November, 1).;5 -a record for manned balloons that stood for 21 years.