By Colin Babb, Office of Naval Research
A year before the Space Race kicked into high gear with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 satellite, manned flight reached closer to space using a more traditional method—a balloon. There was, however, nothing very traditional about this particular balloon.
Funded jointly by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the National Science Foundation, this one was made out of polyethylene plastic (so it would not expand and explode at high altitudes like rubber) two-thousandths of an inch thick, and carried a sealed, pressurized gondola called Stratolab with a crew of two. On Nov. 8, 1956, Stratolab set a world record of 76,000 feet, higher than any humans had ever gone before without a rocket.
Stratolab was an extension of two other ONR-funded projects, Helios and Skyhook, which had developed extreme high-altitude balloons in the late 1940s for atmospheric research (there were other ONR cross-connections as well: one of Helios’ balloon builders, Jean Piccard, was the uncle of Jacques Piccard, who would pilot the bathyscaphe Trieste to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 1960 alongside Navy Lt. Don Walsh). Stratolab’s mission was to extend research into the farthest reaches of the atmosphere, to a point where instruments pointed skyward could measure and observe phenomena in space beyond 96 percent or more of the atmosphere.
On this ascent 58 years ago, pilots Lt. Cmdr. Malcolm Ross and Lt. Cmdr. Lee Lewis were to observe the sky with the most sophisticated technology on hand: binoculars. They launched from the same spot in South Dakota, a natural circular depression dubbed the “Stratobowl,” where 21 years before the last record-breaking balloon flight had taken place.
Only minutes after reaching their record height, however, the men had little time except to look briefly out the gondola’s ports when they unexpectedly began to descend. An automatic valve on the balloon had malfunctioned, and Stratolab started falling at 4,000 feet per minute.
By dumping all their ballast and 200 pounds of equipment out of the gondola, Ross and Lee managed to slow the craft’s descent. Slowing to a more manageable but still dangerous 800 feet per minute, the two pilots landed safely in a sandy basin in Nebraska.
Stratolab would go on to hoist a variety of instruments into near-space, from coronographs for measuring the sun’s brightness to telescopes for observing the stars.
The program’s ultimate success—an ascent to 113,740 feet on May 4, 1961—was overshadowed by both tragedy and triumph. After landing safely in the Gulf of Mexico, Lt. Cmdr. Victor Prather drowned when he fell from the recovery helicopter.
The next day, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space when his Freedom 7 rocket reached an altitude of just over 101 nautical miles. Shepard wore the same Mark IV spacesuit that had been developed for and tested by Stratolab pilots.
The science behind Stratolab continued on, however. Its full realization began with a series of solar and astronomical observing satellites launched later in the 1960s and 1970s, and culminated in the launch of NASA’s four large space-based observatories: the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory in 1991, the Chandra X-ray Observatory in 1999, and the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2003. The evolution of the observation of space from space will be carried forward even further with the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for launch in 2018.
Colin Babb is a contractor serving as the historian for the Office of Naval Research.
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