Aerostatic Altitude Ascents
We have been enabled to ascend among the phenomena of the heavens, and to exchange conjecture for instrumental facts, recorded at elevations exceeding the highest mountains of the earth.
James Glaisher, 1872
Scale in thousands of feet.
Lighter than air craft dominated the sky for a hundred and twenty years until the invention of the aeroplane. Thereafter, the unguidable balloon became more or less a relic of a past age. However, there was one thing a balloon could do that aeroplanes could not. It could reach enormous altitudes, and hover there for hours, or sometimes days. Even the first manned balloon flight is said to have reached an altitude of 3,000 feet, a height it took the first aeroplanes six years to exceed.
This balloon, the creation of the Montgolfier brothers, and therefore a 'Montgolfiere', was inflated with hot air. It ascended on November 23, 1783. Eight days later, J. A. C. Charles and M.-N. Roberts rose from Paris in the first manned balloon filled with hydrogen, (a 'Charliere') and landed safely at sunset after a successful voyage. As the balloon was still inflated, Charles decided upon a lone ascent. In twenty minutes, he was 9,000 feet above the earth. The partly flaccid balloon swelled again into a sphere, and great quantities of hydrogen escaped from a silk tube beneath the envelope, swathing the aeronaut for a time in warmth. This did not last, and soon Charles felt a numbing cold. He made a skilful nocturnal landing.
M. de Meunier calculated that Charles had reached a height of 10,500 feet, “an elevation somewhat greater than that of Mount Etna.”
Disparaging rumours circulated later to the effect that Charles had been so alarmed by his altitude ascent that he never flew again. Others said that the whole thing had been an accident; the balloon shot up to a great height as soon as Roberts left the car, taking Charles with it.
The first military aircraft was the French tethered observation balloon L'Entreprenant ('Enterprise') which helped the army of the First Republic during the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. After its war service, L'Entreprenant was purchased by Etienne Robertson, who made the first ascent intended to study conditions in the upper atmosphere on July 18, 1803, from Hamburg. He claimed to have reached an altitude of 23,526 feet, even though few results were obtained, and spun other yarns, such as the swelling of heads, that fellow aeronauts found hard to swallow. He said that at high altitude “the atmosphere, which was of a perfect purity near the earth, was grey and misty above our heads, and the beautiful blue sky seen from the surface did not exist for us...At half-past eleven, the balloon was no longer visible from Hamburg. The heavens were so pure beneath us that everything was distinctly seen by us, though very much diminished...the town of Hamburg seemed only a red point in our eyes; the Elbe looked like a straight ribbon.”
Many disbelieved Robertson, as his balloon was considered too small to have reached such a height. A balloon has to be partially filled with just enough gas for ascension to reach great heights, so that the gas may expand. A large balloon is therefore needed. A small balloon would lose so much gas and ballast on the ascent that a safe descent would be impossible. The scientists of the French Academy concluded that Robertson could not have exceeded 21,400 feet.
The rescue of Count Zambeccari
In October 1803, Count Zambeccari, Dr. Grassati and Sr. Andreoli ascended from Bologna in a 'Roziere', or 'combination' balloon, with both a hot air and a hydrogen portion. The first such balloon had burst into flames and crashed during an attempt to cross the English Channel in 1785, killing its inventor, J-F P. de Rozier, who had also been the first man to fly. The hot-air portion of Zambeccari's Roziere proved useless, but the balloon nevertheless ascended to a great height, later “conjectured to exceed five miles”. After the first ascent, the balloon fell into the Adriatic Sea, and the aeronauts jettisoned all their ballast. The balloon then lifted again to a high altitude, where the Count was sick, Grassetti bled from the nose and all were covered with ice. After a second plunge into the Adriatic, the balloonists were eventually rescued by a passing ship. Zambeccari lost the fingers from one hand by frostbite. Before their rescue, the balloon was sighted by a boatman. He believed he saw “the devil in the air, surrounded by a globe of fire”, and fled.
The Nassau Balloon
The famous aeronaut Charles Green and his equally famous balloon Royal Vauxhall, made of 2,000 yards of red and white silk, made an epic voyage of 480 miles from London to the Duchy of Nassau on November 7, 1836. The balloon was then renamed the Nassau. Green and the Nassau made a number of high altitude ascents. The first was involuntary, when he released Robert Cocking in his experimental parachute at 5,000 feet over Kent on July 24, 1837. After releasing the parachute, the balloon rose so rapidly that the aeronauts were blinded by escaping gas. When they recovered, the barometer read 13.20 inches, a calculated height of 23,384 feet, but the balloon was falling rapidly, and Green thought he might have reached 27,000 feet. They landed at Offham in Kent. The balloon had lost a third of its gas and the car hung nearly 60 feet below the envelope. Cocking's parachute collapsed and he was killed.
Robert Cocking’s parachute collapses as the Nassau balloon ascends uncontrollably, July 24, 1837
The Nassau balloon, with Green, E. Spencer, and Rush, made a more controlled ascent from Vauxhall Gardens on September 4, 1838. They wished to ascertain the greatest height attainable with 3 persons in the car, whether respiration would be affected at great altitudes as it is on lofty mountains, and the changes of temperature with height. On the ground the barometer was 30 inches and the thermometer 66º F. Ballast was constantly discharged and the ascent was very rapid, “gas rushed from the lower valve in considerable torrents.” The balloon “rotated in a spiral motion with astonishing rapidity.” The greatest altitude was 19,335 feet, or 3 and a half miles and 855 feet. The barometer was 14.70 inches and the temperature 25º F. The aeronauts felt no difficulty in respiration.
Green and Rush made another high ascent from the Vauxhall Gardens six days later on September 10, 1838 The barometer on the ground was 30.50 inches and the thermometer 60º F. Green discarded one hundredweight of ballast just before starting, and after 7 minutes the balloon was 2 miles high. The aeronauts “found it a matter of the utmost difficulty to fetch (their) breath.” The greatest altitude was 27,146 feet, or 5 miles and 746 feet. Barometer was 11 inches and temperature 5º F., or 27 degrees below freezing. The sun set just before the ascent, yet at 12,500 feet they were “once more within the sun's rays.” The balloon landed near Lewes. The aeronauts suffered severely from cold feet and hands. Figures for their peak altitude vary from 20,352 feet to 29,000 feet. Professor Assmann calculated no more than 26,000 feet.
James Glaisher’s profile of his high altitude ascent, 1862
The noted meteorologist James Glaisher ascended with Henry Coxwell from Wolverhampton in the 90,000 cubic foot capacity coal gas balloon Mammoth on September 5, 1862. Temperature at ground level was 59º F. The balloon revolved slowly around its axis in thick cloud util about 11,000 feet, when it emerged into sunshine. 1 hour and 45 minutes after takeoff the balloon was 4 miles high, and 10 minutes later was 5 miles high. The aeronauts experienced no ill-effects until they reached an altitude of about 29,500 feet, where the temperature was -26º C. Then both men became unconscious, one after the other, and, when they revived, the balloon was descending. They landed safely at Clee St. Margaret. As the aeronauts had passed out when the Mammoth reached its maximum height, there was much dispute as to what that height actually was. Coxwell thought that the minimum barometer reading he saw was 7 inches, and Glaisher estimated a maximum altitude of 37,000 feet (11,278 metres). Most experts thought this excessive, but it was generally agreed that the aeronauts “almost certainly exceeded an altitude of 30,000 feet”. The aeronautical historian C. H. Gibbs-Smith disagreed. “Glaisher may...have got to 19,000 feet, or a bit higher, but his own claim is nonsense...But it was a good effort”.
The Zenith Balloon
Gaston Tissandier, J.E. Crocé-Spinelli and H.T. Sivel ascended from La Villette in the 106,000 cubic foot capacity balloon Zenith on April 15, 1875, in a bid to exceed Glaisher's altitude. They had oxygen bladders with tubes and hand-held mouthpieces, which they began to use at a height of 22,970 feet when the balloon reached equilibrium an hour and 25 minutes after takeoff. The oxygen seemed to have a good effect, so much ballast was thrown out. At 23,000 feet, the balloon was surrounded by cirrus clouds; the earth’s surface appeared as though “at the bottom of a well, of which the cirrus and the lower mists formed the inner wall...The sky, far from being dark and deep, was light blue and limpid; the scorching sun seared our faces.” At 24,300 feet they became short of breath, and Tissandier passed out. After an unconscious interval, Tissandier was roused by Crocé-Spinelli with the warning that the balloon was descending rapidly. More ballast was thrown out, including an 80-pound aspirator. The Zenith rose again, and at a height of 26,250 feet, Tissandier again blacked out. When he revived, the balloon was descending rapidly, and both his companions were dead, with blackened faces and blood flowing from their mouths and noses. He landed the balloon at Ciron, 190 miles SSW of Paris.
After the Zenith disaster, 1875
On December 4, 1894, Arthur Berson ascended in the 91,000 cubic foot hydrogen balloon Phoenix from Strasbourg and reached an altitude of 30,040 feet. He and Dr. R. Suring ascended from Berlin on July 31, 1901 in the 296,643 cubic foot balloon Preussen (Prussia), with oxygen apparatus in an open basket. At an altitude of 33,546 feet the temperature was -39.7º C. They threw out ballast, but Suring lost consciousness. Berson pulled the valve line and also passed out. They revived at 19,685 feet and landed safely. Their maximum altitude was 35,500 feet.
The Preussen balloon ascending
In the 1930s there was a determined effort to penetrate the troposphere, the atmospheric layer nearest the Earth's surface in which most weather occurs, and to reach the mysterious cold calmness of the stratosphere. It seemed likely that aeroplanes would be flying in this region before long, and, among other stratospheric questions, scientists wished to discover the origin of the 'cosmic rays', penetrating radiation which many scientists believed originated in outer space. Numerous balloon flights, both manned and unmanned, failed to resolve the problem, and it seemed none had been able to fly high enough. Even larger balloons would be required, and the aeronauts could no longer ride in open cars, taking whiffs of oxygen when needed, (a scheme which so far had failed to work effectively) but would have to occupy a closed capsule.
Professor Auguste Piccard in the gondola of his stratosphere balloon.
Professor Auguste Piccard attempted to ascend in a sealed gondola below the hydrogen balloon F.N.R.S. on 14 September 1930. He hoped to reach an altitude of 52,500 feet, but the balloon refused to leave the ground.
Piccard’s balloon inflated to one-seventh capacity and ready to ascend.
On 27 May 1931, with a new balloon of 498,991 cubic feet, Piccard and Dr. Paul Kipfer ascended from Augsburg in Bavaria. In 30 minutes they reached 51,775 feet, 9.81 miles. Piccard was mainly occupied with the art of stratospheric ballooning, and although the ascent was ostensibly made to study cosmic rays, only one cosmic ray measurement was made. The temperature inside the gondola reached 41º C. (106º F.) due to intense solar radiation. Outside temperature was -55º C. (-48º F.) After a 17 hour flight the balloon landed at night on the Grosse Gurgi glacier in the Austrian Tyrol. The gondola had to be left there until the following year.
On August 18, 1932, Piccard and Dr. Max Cosyns ascended from Zurich and reached a record altitude of 54,789 feet, 10.07 miles. He landed on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy.
Auguste Piccard’s balloon fully inflated at maximum altitude.
A 'height race' involving national prestige now began, with the Soviet Union taking up the challenge on September 30, 1933. The Soviet balloonists G. Prokofiev, E. Birnbaum and K. Gudunov ascended from Moscow in a riveted aluminium alloy gondola beneath the enormous 847,000 cubic feet balloon U.S.S.R. and took just over half an hour to reach 46,000 feet. They attained an altitude of over 62,320 feet, almost 12 miles. The coldest outside temperature recorded was -120.6º F. The balloon was visible through field-glasses from the ground throughout the flight.
The Soviet balloon Ossoaviakhim Syrius, captained by P. Fedoseenko with A. Vasenko and I. Usyskin, took off from Moscow at 9 a.m. on January 30, 1934, and by 11:45 a.m. was 12.8 miles high. A radio message reporting the balloon in a “zone of heavy moisture – ice-coated” was heard at Gomel. Between 3 and 5.30 p.m., during the descent, the gondola tore away from the balloon and fell near Potiski Ostrog, 364 miles E.S.E. All three aeronauts were killed. The official view at the time was that “a strong current caught the balloon at high altitude and whirled it to a distant zone of bad weather.” A barograph found in the wreckage showed a maximum altitude of 22 kilometres. (13.67 miles, 72,178 feet). The sky colours recorded by the aeronauts changed from 'marine blue' at 5.28 miles, through dark blue, dark violet, dark violet-marine, dark violet-grey, to, at a height of 13.67 miles, black-grey. An investigation found that the balloon had insufficient ballast to descend safely from the altitude which it was allowed to reach, and a complex escape hatch prevented the crew from bailing out.
(Left) the Explorer I balloon ruptures, and (right) crashes. The parachute of one of the crew is visible on the right.
Major W.E. Kepner, Captain A.W. Stevens and Captain. O.A. Anderson ascended in the 3,000,000 cubic feet balloon Explorer I from Rapid City, South Dakota on July 28, 1934. The vast rubberised cotton balloon, which would expand to a height of 252 feet at a height of 60,000 feet, lifted off filled to only 7 per cent capacity with hydrogen, bearing a Dowmetal (magnesium alloy) gondola. Most of the envelope was closely folded during the ascent, expanding to a sphere when at peak altitude. Everything went well during the ascent, until, at 60,000 feet, the base of the envelope developed several rips. The crew descended at once, but the envelope continued to tear, and ruptured completely at 6,500 feet. The crew parachuted out of the falling gondola, and landed safely. Most of the scientific records were lost when the ruined balloon and gondola crashed near Holdrege, Nebraska.
The seven-ton gondola of Explorer II. It was nine feet in diameter.
Explorer II about to land in South Dakota after descending from the stratosphere. Moments later the rip panel was pulled and the balloon deflated.
Captains A.W. Stevens and O. A. Anderson ascended from Rapid City, South Dakota, in the 3,700,000 cubic feet rubberised cloth helium balloon Explorer II at 4 a.m. on November 11, 1935. The balloon reached an altitude of 72,395 feet (13.71 miles) at 10:50 and remained there until 12:20 p.m. The balloon made a perfect controlled landing 125 miles away near White Lake, South Dakota after 8 hours 13 minutes. A photograph taken at the peak of the ascent was the first to show the curvature of the Earth, with a horizon over 300 miles distant.
South Dakota photographed from the Explorer II balloon at a height of 72,395 feet
The stratosphere ascents of the 1930s provided useful scientific data on that region, but many scientists argued that the same result might be obtained, without the danger and expense of manned flights, by small ‘sounding’ balloons lifting automatic instruments. They pointed out that an unmanned sounding balloon released from Uccle in Belgium on July 25, 1907, had reached a height of 87,131 feet, or over l6 miles. However, after World War II, aircraft were venturing into stratospheric heights, and there were plans to ascend beyond the atmosphere altogether. Cosmic rays, of mainly academic interest in the 1930s, now seemed as if they might be a danger to the crews of high-altitude aircraft and spacecraft. The only way to find out was to send a human being into the upper air; not for a few minutes in an aeroplane, but for hours and possibly days. The only vehicle capable of doing this was still the balloon.
The United States Air Force programme Man High was a project to send one aeronaut for a protracted stay of at least a day in the stratosphere, riding in a cylindrical capsule beneath a huge 200-foot diameter plastic balloon containing 3 million cubic feet of helium. The roomy gondolas of the 1930s were things of the past; the Man High aeronaut would ascend in an 8-foot high and 3-foot wide aluminium cylinder that had barely room for him to stand up.
Man High I ascended from Fleming Field, Minnesota, on June 2, 1957, with Captain J. Kittinger in the cramped capsule. The balloon reached an altitude of 96,000 feet, but radio and oxygen problems forced an early descent. Kittinger described the sky at his maximum altitude as “very dark blue, almost black. It's hard to describe the colour, whether it was black or blue-black.”
Man High II ascending
Man High II ascended from the Hanna Mine Pit in Minnesota on August 19, 1958, with Major D.G. Simons as the aeronaut. The balloon took 2 hours and 18 minutes to reach its maximum altitude of 102,000 feet, and Simons would spend 32 hours in the stratosphere. At this height, blue sky reached about 10 degrees above the horizon, changing from white to pale blue to dark bluish purple; “...the sky was so heavily saturated with this bluish-purple colour that it was inescapable, yet its intensity was so low that it was hard to comprehend...” His horizon was 400 miles away. A storm front moved under him during the night, and the cooling balloon descended to 70,000 feet. There, it was buffeted by wind gusts from the storms, and Simons saw the summit of a thunderstorm reaching to his altitude. With daylight, the balloon ascended to 95,000 feet before making a safe landing near Aberdeen, South Dakota.
There was a return to earlier ages on August 16, 1960, when Captain Kittinger ascended in an open car beneath a huge Mylar plastic balloon from the Tularosa Basin, New Mexico.. Kittinger was wearing a pressure suit, the right glove of which failed at 48,000 feet, rendering that hand useless. At an altitude of 102,890 feet, Kittinger leapt from the car and began the fall back to earth, at first at a speed of 615 miles per hour. After 4 minutes and 37 seconds, the automatic parachute system worked perfectly, and, less than 14 minutes after leaving the car, he was safely back on the ground.