THE LONG, LONELY LEAP
OVERHEAD my onion-shaped balloon spread its 200-foot diameter against a black daytime sky. More than 18 1/2 miles below lay the cloud-hidden New Mexico desert to which I shortly would parachute.
Sitting in my gondola, which gently twisted with the balloon's slow turnings, I had begun to sweat lightly, though the temperature read 36 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Sunlight burned in on me under the edge of an aluminized antiglare curtain and through the gondola's open door.
In my earphones crackled the voice of Capt. Marvin Feldstein, one of our project's two doctors, from ground control at Holloman Air Force Base:
"Three minutes till jump, Joe."
I was ready to go, for more reasons than one. For about an hour - as the balloon rose from 50,000 to 102,800 feet above sea level - I had been exposed to an environment requiring the protection of a pressure suit and helmet, and the fear of their failure had always been present. If either should break, unconsciousness would come in 10 or 12 seconds, and death within two minutes.
In our altitude-chamber flights at the laboratory, I always knew that if something went wrong, the chamber pressure could be increased immediately, returning me to safety. Doctors stood just a few feet away, watching through a porthole for any sign of malfunction. But here in the eerie silence of space, I knew that my life depended entirely upon my equipment, my own actions, and the presence of God.
Aerodynamically, space begins about 120 miles from earth. Physiologically and psychologically, however, it starts only 12 miles up, where survival requires elaborate protection against an actual space environment. Thanks to my dedicated Project Excelsior team, I had twice before penetrated this realm in an open gondola to make test jumps from 14-mile heights. Now I had climbed to l9 1/2 miles above sea level, where the physical and mental hazards were much greater, for a more conclusive test of our space-survival and parachute escape systems.
The idea of men reaching toward space with balloons and parachutes in the age of jet planes and rockets may seem strange. Actually, it makes the best kind of sense. No powered aircraft can put man into a space environment and keep him there for a sustained period of time. But the lighter-than-air balloon, man's oldest flight vehicle, can.
Twenty-five years ago last month, two Army Air Corps captains, Albert W. Stevens and Orvil A. Anderson, took the balloon Explorer II to the then unprecedented height of 72,395 feet-13.71 miles. Their pressurized gondola and its instruments constituted a two-and-a-quarter-ton payload. Results of this famous National Geographic Society-U.S. Army Air Corps stratosphere flight are studied by airmen to this day.
To understand the need for a high-altitude escape system, consider the plight of an airman who has to bail out above 20,000 feet. He faces two choices, either of which could be fatal. Should he open his chute immediately after bail-out from a speeding craft, he risks death from his canopy's opening shock, from lack of oxygen, or from severe cold.
Flat spin imperils him if he tries to fall free to lower, livable altitudes before opening his chute. His body may whirl like a runaway propeller. Flat spin is a characteristic of any falling object that is aerodynamically unstable. Dummies dropped from balloons up to 100,000 feet have attained 200 revolutions per minute, whereas tests show that 140 r.p.m. would be harmful, possibly fatal.
The problem was to get a man down fast to lower levels before opening his chute, but at the same time to safeguard him against flat spin. The answer came from Francis Beaupre of the Air Force's Aerospace Medical Division. His organization is part of the Air Research and Development Command's Wright Air Development Division, which directed our project. Beau asked himself: Why not use a small parachute to stabilize a man during free fall, as a sea anchor steadies a ship? He started to work on what was to become the Beaupre stabilization parachute, one of the few major innovations in parachutes since the seat-pack type won the approval of the Army back in 1919.
Beau's chute consists of three units: a conventional, spring-type chute to catch the wind and provide the pull to open the next unit; a 6-foot-wide stabilization canopy to prevent flat spin during free fall; and finally a conventional 28-foot chute to open at about 18,000 feet.
JUMP PROJECT GOES INTO HIGH GEAR
Our project really begins to gain speed on the eve of the jump. Alerts go out to the launch crew, ground control station, Holloman base weathermen, and all support units. Clearance for use of the White Sands Missile Range, the approximately 100-by-40-mile test basin, is obtained from the Army. We brief our own crew and the pilots of the support aircraft.
Technicians swarm around the 4 1/2-foot- wide gondola. First Lt. Don Fordham and civilian Don Griggs check the electronics control systems. Airman 1/c Frank Hale, a parachutist himself, joins Beau in testing canopies, shrouds, cables, and lanyards. Another veteran jumper, Capt. Billy Mills, our cigar-chewing assistant project officer, oversees prelaunch check lists of more than 1,000 entries.
The gondola's 12 camera eyes-including one provided by the National Geographic Society-are mounted by Ken Arnold and Gene Gallatin. Plastic water bottles and aluminum foil shield the cameras and other equipment against the cold.
As launch-day-minus-one progresses, I come under the close scrutiny of our two project physicians. For a week I have been on a high-protein, low-residue diet, and I avoid gas-producing foods. Gas expands with increasing altitude, so that air trapped in my stomach or intestines could cause pain so severe that I could be forced to jump prematurely. The diet is mainly meat and potatoes.
The doctors also take a final look at ears, nose, and throat. Any air pocketed in the body could force me down too soon. By afternoon, work halts for most of our team, but our weathermen, Duke Gildenberg and Ralph Reynolds, are facing their most intricate task. They must bring me to earth in an 11-milesquare target area about 25 miles northwest of Holloman. They must predict weather conditions for the following morning high aloft as well as on the ground, and decide if surface winds will permit a safe take-off. Checking with Holloman base weathermen, they reach a favorable decision and choose an abandoned dirt airstrip 18 miles from the base as the launching site.
Forty-five minutes before midnight a convoy of some 20 vehicles heads northeast through Alamogordo. Frightening jack rabbits as they turn onto the old airstrip, vehicles wheel into position amid mesquite and greasewood. Mobile generators start, communications antennas are mounted, and the first of the hourly pilot balloons, called pibals for short, wavers aloft to provide a wind reading.
The gondola, on a flat-bed truck, becomes the center of activity as it gets a final grooming. Some 300 feet away, T/Sgt. Melvin 12). Johnson directs the balloon launching crew.
OXYGEN GUARDS AGAINST BENDS
At 3 o'clock I enter the trailer that we use as a dressing room. Here I start breathing oxygen,and I will not take a breath of natural air until I reach lower altitudes on my descent, some four hours later. This gets most of the nitrogen out of my body. With increasing altitude, nitrogen forms bubbles that expand, cause severe pain, and can be fatal-an ailment known as the bends, which also threatens divers.
As I begin breathing oxygen, I relax on a cot before beginning to dress. I am profoundly aware of the activity around me, and I feel strengthened at the thought of our team's thoroughness and enthusiasm. Some people may wonder how I could enjoy any degree of equanimity in view of the job ahead, and I think that the answer lies in a four-point philosophy that I have developed:
- I must have confidence in my team.
- I must have confidence in my equipment.
- I must have confidence in myself.
- I must have confidence in God.
Secure on these four points, a man can face almost anything. In fact, I had been able to doze off for a few minutes at the launch site before my jump in November of 1959.
At 3:30 o'clock, T/Sgt. R. A. Daniels and T/Sgt. Eugene Fritz start to dress me. Outside, our mobile cooler roars to life, and a blast of cold air lowers the dressing room temperature to 50 degrees F. The chilled air keeps me from sweating as I put on layer after layer of clothing. Perspiration would cause trouble in the cold realm where I am going.
As Johnny and his crew begin to inflate the balloon, the prospect of cancellation arises. The cloud build-up is continuing, and Duke Gildenberg advises a brief wait. The decision is up to Maj. Irving Levin, Holloman Balloon Branch chief.
At this point the air conditioner sputters and seems about to die. With two possible causes for cancellation, our spirits fall.
By 4:30, however, weather prospects have brightened, and take-off time is reset from 5 o'clock to 5:30. And the air conditioner is coaxed back to life. Everyone cheers up.
The inflation of a large balloon is a dramatic sight. The big bag seems so lifeless as it lies formless on the ground. But now it begins to mount skyward like some giant plant, its crown blooming like a flower. When I see its silhouette in the pale dawn, I know the mission is nearing reality. Just before 5 o'clock I leave the dressing trailer, a bent and shuffling figure under 155 pounds of gear-just three pounds less than my own weight. Beau and Daniels lift me to the truck bearing the gondola, then up that "highest step in the world".
RED FLARE SIGNALS WARNING
I am still breathing oxygen. The air-conditioner hose, with an eight-inch diameter, is shifted from the trailer, and its flow is directed over me. Team members make final checks: electrical circuits, safety plugs, radios, parachutes, cameras, partial pressure suit, oxygen. The helmet is lowered over my head, and suddenly I feel a man apart.
A red flare arcs across the desert, announcing to all that take-off is just 10 minuses away. The truck trundles me and the gondola to a spot directly beneath the balloon-now towering 360 feet, tall as a 33-story building.
Balloon and gondola are connected. Dan closes and locks my face plate, two layers of clear plastic separated by an almost transparent film of gold through which an electric current passes to prevent fogging. The aluminized curtain is hung around the gondola above my head to reduce my exposure to solar radiation.
"Well, I believe we're about ready to go," says the Virginia drawl of Billy Mills over the interphone.
"Fire one!" Sergeant Johnson snaps.
The explosive squibs that hold balloon to crane boom fire sharply,- cutting the lines, and the rig is now restrained only by straps that connect the tugging gondola to the truck.
"Fire two!" comes the final command.
A second round of squibs fires, cutting the truck straps. At 5:29 a.m. I am on the way up, rising at 1,200 feet a minute.
In statistical terms, a 1,069-pound, helium- filled balloon has begun to lift a 1,250-pound payload from a launch elevation of 4,500 feet to a maximum altitude of 102,800 feet. My interest in 158 pounds of that payload goes beyond the statistical, however. I ponder the maxim known for some reason as Murphy's First Law: "What can go wrong, will go wrong." And I wonder what could go wrong.
At 43,000 feet I find out. My right hand does not feel normal. I examine the pressure glove; its air bladder is not inflating.
The prospect of exposing the hand to the near-vacuum of peak altitude causes me some concern. From my previous experiences, I know that the hand will swell, lose most of its circulation, and cause extreme pain. I also know, however, that I can still operate the gondola, since all the controls can be manipulated by the flick of a switch or a nudge of the hand.
I am acutely aware of all the faith, sweat, and work that are riding with me on this mission. I decide to continue the ascent, without notifying ground control of my difficulty.
TROPOPAUSE BARRIER LOOMS ABOVE
I am already approaching the halfway mark in vertical distance, but in terms of obstacles to be faced, I still have far to go. One is the tropopause, an atmospheric boundary where I will encounter the coldest temperatures of the flight. There the balloon's polyethylene fabric-only two-thousandths of an inch thick and of the same filmy material used to contain some frozen foods and dry-cleaned clothes - will become almost brittle from the cold. Any undue strain can cause a rupture. About half of balloon failures occur at the tropopause.
The temperature drops steadily until it reaches -94 degrees F. at 50,000 feet, then starts to rise. I have safely passed the tropopause barrier.
Propelled by the prevailing westerlies, the balloon has drifted 15 miles east of the launch site. However, easterlies start me back toward the target area as predicted. But the clouds, now far below me, fail to act according to forecast. Instead of thinning under the sun's heat, they thicken.
Every balloon has a drag limit, the point at which its upward velocity creates a drag strong enough to threaten damage. At 60,000 feet, my ascent rate approaches 1,300 feet per minute, only lOO.short of the balloon's limit. Gildenberig, back fat Holloman, is monitoring my ascent and asks me to valve off some helium. I do so, and my climb slows to a safe 950 feet per minute.
As Marv Feldstein continues to advise me from ground control, I can sense that the tension there is growing. Our weather men have spotted a small hole in the clouds, west of the target area, and are figuring whether the hole will enlarge and whether the balloon will drift above it.
The device that traces my pulse and breathing on a paper tape has broken, and two pretty nurses have been recruited to record the audio heart-respiratory signal. In effect, they are taking my pulse by remote control, but I think I prefer the old-fashioned way.
An hour and thirty-one minutes after launch, my pressure altimeter halts at 103,300 feet. At ground control the radar altimeters also have stopped-on readings of 102,800 feet, the figure that we later agree upon as the more reliable. It is 7 o'clock in the morning, and I have reached float altitude.
HELP LIES TOO FAR AWAY
A mixed feeling of awe and remoteness has been building up all through the ascent, and now it almost overcomes me. I feel awe at the thought of floating easily at a height that man has never achieved before without the protection of a sealed cabin. I feel remoteness because I am beyond reach of help and friends if anything should go wrong.
I want to describe my impressions of this high, alien world. Striving for the right words, I send a message to ground control:
"There is a hostile sky above me. Man will never conquer space. He may live in it, but he will never conquer it. The sky above is void and very black and very hostile."
I am grateful that the balloon revolves slowly, because I have a chance to sweep the horizon through the gondola's open door.
I note the change in the sky's hue: normal blue to about 15 degrees above the horizon, then increasingly dark until it attains the inky depth of night around the balloon. Such a dark sky without stars seems strange, but I stare in vain to find just one.
I make one exciting discovery. There are clouds at my altitude. They are so thin that I see them only when my vision comes within 30 degrees of the sun, but then they reflect the light with a dazzling whiteness. I remember reports of clouds this high, but the actual sight of them is fantastic.
I turn my gaze to the earth below me. I should be able to sweep a 780-mile-wide circle of the surface, but haze curtains the horizon, and large segments of clouds blot out much of the nearer landscape. I easily make out the towering head of a thunderstorm that a weather check later plots near Flagstaff, Arizona, 350 miles distant.
Burdened by heavy clothes and gear, I begin to pay the physical toll for my altitude. Every move demands a high cost in energy. My eyes smart from the fierce glare of the sun. When it beams in the gondola door on my left side, I feel the effect of strong radiation and begin to sweat. On my right side, mostly in shadow, heat escaping from my garments makes a vapor like steam. Circulation has almost stopped in my unpressurized right hand, which feels stiff and painful.
'After nine minutes at peak altitude, I begin to think of the descent and call ground control for an estimate on jump time.
The hole in the clouds has failed to enlarge. Meanwhile, a 30-knot wind speeds me west. Duke decides that I should step out over the target zone, despite the thick blanket that covers it. Marv relays the word:
"Three minutes till jump, Joe."
The words are welcome. Activity comes as a relief to the surge of emotions I have~experienced, despite the big drop ahead of me. Besides, the big drop is the only way home.
At X-minus-70-seconds, I drop the trailing antenna, cutting communications with the ground. I begin my countdown, severing one by one my ties to the gondola. My seat kit with its instruments and camera takes over the functions of supplying my oxygen, recording my heart and respiratory rate, keeping records of my altitude and azimuth.
I start the cameras in the gondola, and their clicking makes me abruptly aware of how silent my stay in space has been.
At zero count I step into space. No wind whistles or billows my clothing. I have absolutely no sensation of the increasing speed with which I fall.
I drop facing the clouds. Then I roll over on my back and find an eerie sight. The white balloon contrasts starkly with a sky as black as night, though it is 7:12 in the morning and I am bathed in sunshine. Again I look for stars, but see none.
When the 6-foot stabilization canopy pops out, I already have dropped to about 96,000 feet. I am delighted to find myself perfectly anchored against the dreaded flat spin. I turn with ease by sticking out an arm and leg. However, a new danger threatens. Soon after I become stabilized, I feel a choking sensation. I had experienced the same thing on a previous jump, and we had devoted countless tests to eliminating it. As I plummet lower, the sensation eases but worry remains.
FREE FALL ENDS IN BLANKET OF CLOUDS
The clouds, which seconds before seemed motionless and remote, now rush up at me. I have never entered clouds in a free fall before, and I have to persuade myself that they are mere vapor and not solid earth.
At 21,000 feet the thick blanket envelops me. Some 3,500 feet lower, and 4 minutes, 38 seconds after my fall began, my main canopy pops open. I can see neither sky nor ground, but I know the worst is over. As I disarm my emergency chute and begin disconnecting my seat kit, I escape clouds at -15,000 feet and behold a beautiful sight-two helicopters circling attentively. I know that recovery trucks speed toward my landing site.
I detach the seat kit except for a single line. My swollen right hand lacks the strength to unfasten that final tie, and I can't reach it with my left. A thousand feet above the desert, I stop trying. I will have to land with the heavy box dangling awkwardly at my side.
The landing is as hard as any I have ever made in my life. The seat kit strikes my leg, inflicting a severe bruise. But I am on the ground, apparently in one piece. I am surrounded by sand, salt grass, and sage, but no Garden of Eden could look more beautiful. The elapsed time since bail-out is 13 minutes, 45 seconds.
The helicopters land, and George Post, Gene Fritz, Beau, and Dr. Dick Chubb dash toward me, all wearing big smiles. They remove my helmet and heavy flight garments.
Dick looks at the swollen hand with concern. Three hours later the swelling will have disappeared with no ill effect.
As clean, fresh air washes over me, I say, "I'm very glad to be back with you all."
All the text and images above were borrowed from NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, December, 1960: V.118, N.6, p.854.
I take no credit for the amazing photos and story above, I just wanted to share it. Thank you National Geographic and Joe Kittinger.