Fifty-two years ago this week, Alan Shepard made history as America’s first man in space. Atop a modified Redstone missile he was hurled 116 miles into the heavens, in a 15-minute suborbital “hop” which began at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and ended in the Atlantic Ocean, 99 miles north of the Bahamas. In doing so, Shepard accrued numerous records for the United States: he became the highest-flying American in history, the fastest American in history, and the first American in history to travel beyond the sensible atmosphere. Yet only hours before his pioneering voyage, on 4 May 1961, a pair of U.S. Navy aviators undertook their own venture into the unknown. Their mission lasted nine hours and ended triumphantly and tragically; triumphantly in that the records they set remain unbroken to this day, but tragically in that one of them did not survive to enjoy the fruits of his success.
By the beginning of the Space Age, balloon-borne ascents into the high atmosphere had become more frequent, thought fraught with risk. For two decades, numerous nations—including the United States and the Soviet Union—had despatched explorers into the stratosphere, and in the early 1950s the U.S. Navy put its resources behind the creation of a manned balloon and pressurized gondola to reach the very edge of space. The project, known as “Stratolab,” saw its pilots rise in either fully-pressurised capsules or open gondolas, carried beneath enormous balloons to altitudes as high as 85,700 feet. New pressure suits were tested under the most extreme conditions, physiological measurements were taken, cryogenic life-support systems were evaluated, and carbon dioxide “scrubbers” were trialed. Moreover, “real” scientific research was undertaken, including direct observations of the stratosphere and astronomical studies of Venus.
Stratolab was under the direction of Commander Malcolm Ross, a naval aviator and physics graduate, whose career actually started as a radio sports announcer and broadcaster. After joining the Navy, he trained extensively in meteorology and atmospheric science and flew in combat in the Second World War. After the conflict, he was released from military duty, but later rejoined the Navy and worked on the development of high-altitude balloons for meteorology and observations of cosmic radiation. It was Ross who initiated Project Stratolab, and he and fellow naval officer Lee Lewis rose firstly to 76,000 feet in November 1956 and 85,000 feet in October 1957. By the spring of 1961, Ross had flown four Stratolab high-altitude missions. On the eve of the launch of America’s first astronaut, he would ride a balloon into the stratosphere for the last time.
Ross’ final flight was “Stratolab V,” and it differed from the previous voyages in that he and his co-pilot, Vic Prather, rose not in a pressurised capsule, but in an open gondola. Their overriding objectives were to evaluate the Navy’s Mark IV pressure suit, which, in 1958, had been selected by NASA for its Mercury astronauts. Ross and Prather would subject the suit to the harshest environment it had ever encountered, ascending to a record altitude of more than 113,000 feet and exposing it to temperatures as low as -94 degrees Celsius and air pressures of just 0.09 psi. The physiological focus of the mission made it unsurprising that Prather, a Navy medical officer, was also aboard.
Prather’s heritage is particularly interesting. After earning his medical degree, he joined the Navy as a flight surgeon and devoted his career to aviation medicine. As a key participant in “Project RAM,” he had been involved in efforts to develop prototype space suits at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., and undertook studies into how well they would perform at extreme altitudes. On 4 May 1961, he would put his research to the ultimate test. At 7:08 a.m. Central time, Prather and Ross rose from the flight deck of the U.S.S. Antietam, based in the Gulf of Mexico, aboard Stratolav V. Their gondola was suspended beneath a vast, 300-f00t polyethylene plastic balloon, whose walls were barely 0.001 inches thick. Within an hour, they had passed 53,000 feet and external temperatures had fallen precipitously. The splendour of seeing Earth from such high altitude was captivating. “In silent awe,” Malcolm Ross later recalled, “we contemplated the supernal loveliness of the atmosphere.”
In total, their flight lasted nine hours and 54 minutes and, at around 11:15 a.m., reached a peak altitude of 113,740 feet, or more than 21 miles. The ascent was not perfect, as they experienced condensation on their helmet visors and irritating communications difficulties. Finally, as Stratolab V descended, Ross became concerned that they were moving too rapidly, so he and Prather began dumping ballast out of the gondola. It did not help; they were still descending too rapidly. The men threw out every piece of additional weight that they could manage, including the radio, and at length the gondola achieved a stable descent rate. At 7,000 feet, the men opened their helmet visors and smoked cigarettes.
At 4:02 p.m., they returned to the waters of the Gulf and were quickly joined by one of the Antietam’s rescue helicopters. The ship itself was less than two miles away. Malcolm Ross was winched aboard the chopper (after momentarily slipping back into the water), which returned a few minutes later for Vic Prather. As the medical officer was rescued and the helicopter jerked upwards, he found himself unable to keep hold of the line and plunged back into the water. Since his helmet visor was open, his suit flooded … far too quickly for even the rescue divers to get to him. By the time he was fished out of the Gulf, Prather was dead. It was devastating to Ross to lose his crewmate and, although he later served as a civilian consultant, he never undertook another voyage in a balloon.
Aside from Prather’s tragic end, the flight of Stratolab V was an enormous success, with every objective ticked off the list. The Navy’s Mark IV suits had performed with near-perfection under extreme conditions, and their lasting legacy would be that they were used by the Project Mercury astronauts, and never once failed to deliver. President John Kennedy posthumously awarded Prather the Navy’s Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism and extraordinary achievement, and both he and Ross later received the coveted Harmon Trophy for Aeronauts. Although attempts were made over the years to surpass their record, it was not until the flight of Felix Baumgartner aboard the Red Bull Stratos mission in October 2012—which peaked at 127,851 feet, or more than 24 miles—that the balloon-altitude achievement of Ross and Prather was finally eclipsed. However, since Baumgartner did not return to Earth with his balloon, Ross and Prather still hold the FAI Absolute Altitude Record for balloon flight to this very day.
For a period of just one day, Malcolm Ross and Vic Prather held the record for the highest altitude ever reached by an American citizen and, through their tests of the Mark IV pressure suit, enabled Project Mercury to establish a human presence in space.
Tomorrow’s history article will focus on the historic flight of Freedom 7, which placed America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space.
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