[3.0] Cold War Balloon Flights 1945:1965

v2.2.0 / chapter 3 of 5 / not dated / greg goebel

* The invention of improved plastics, particularly polyethylene, in the postwar period led to the development of truly effective high-altitude balloons. Such balloons were used for scientific research, most notably in the US Navy's SKYHOOK program, as well as for military reconnaissance -- though the balloon reconnaissance effort would be notably unsuccessful. The new polyethylene balloons also led to a spectacular final series of crewed high-altitude balloon research flights.

Joe Kittinger jumps



* Jean Piccard's work on plastic balloons went on hold during World War II, but in late 1945, after the end of the conflict, Piccard ran into Otto C. Winzen -- a German expatriate who had been interned during the war and was an engineer with the Minnesota Tool & Manufacturing Company -- and sold him on the idea of plastic high-altitude balloons. The two men went to the US Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR) and sold ONR officials on it as well, with the ONR providing funding. The exercise was named Project HELIOS.

General Mills, a food-processing company, was contracted to construct the spherical aluminum gondola and the envelope for the HELIOS balloon. There had been major advances in plastics technology since the late 1930s, and one material, polyethylene, seemed ideal for balloon envelopes. Unlike cellophane, which became brittle in the cold and degraded when exposed to high-altitude ozone and ultraviolet light, polyethylene worked well over a wide range of temperatures and resisted attack by ozone and ultraviolet. It weighed about a quarter as much as rubberized fabric per unit area, and it cost less than a fiftieth as much. It was also much more suitable for machine fabrication and assembly than rubberized fabric, with balloons made of strips or "gores" of polyethylene that were taped together.

The first HELIOS flight, of an autonomous balloon with a volume of 850 cubic meters (30,000 cubic feet) and carrying a 28.6-kilogram (63-pound) payload, was from Saint Cloud, Minnesota, on 25 September 1947. Despite the fact that the balloon left much to be desired in terms of production quality, it reached an altitude of 30,500 meters (100,000 feet). The next two flights were complete failures, but although the fourth flight took three days to come down, it returned superb cosmic ray data.

The ultimate goal of HELIOS was to fly assemblies of balloons to carry a crewed gondola. However, the assemblies would have to be impractically big, and so the program was redefined to fly autonomous payloads using single balloons, and renamed SKYHOOK. Flights continued and gradually became a smooth process, with balloons routinely taking payloads to 30,500 meters (100,000 feet) or more. In 1949 Winzen, who held many of the key patents on the SKYHOOK balloons, formed his own company, Winzen Research, to build the high-altitude balloons for SKYHOOK and other US government balloon programs.

Helium was used as the lifting gas, with the balloons released when they were no more than 5% full. A balloon could not rise too slowly lest it be blown back across the ground, but it could not rise too fast since that would overstress the envelope. SKYHOOK payloads often consisted of cosmic-ray traps, which were stacks of photographic plates; or biological test payloads, such as seeds, mice, hamsters, and monkeys, with life support systems developed for the "passengers" to keep them from freezing or suffocating.

One of the objectives of the biological test flights was to determine if cosmic rays were dangerous: the animals showed no ill effects in general, but seeds often showed mutations. Payload weights gradually increased during the program, with the largest gondolas weighing about 136 kilograms (300 pounds). Initial flights were about four hours in duration, eventually increasing to over three days. When the mission was done, a coded radio signal was sent to release the gondola, which parachuted back down to earth. The release system also shredded the balloon envelope so it wouldn't be a hazard.

SKYHOOK balloon

There were over 3,000 SKYHOOK flights up to the end of the program in 1976. SKYHOOK was not, despite the claims of some sources, a classified program, but it wasn't publicized much and attracted little public attention -- except when the balloons were reported as "unidentified flying objects (UFOs)". Although the SKYHOOK balloons had a teardrop appearance at low altitude, they became much more spherical at height, and could move surprisingly fast in high-altitude winds. They could also acquire a very brilliant and colorful appearance after sundown and before sunrise. The sensational reports did prove useful in some cases, with chase plane crews who had lost track of balloons calling around for any reports of UFOs.

* As an element of the SKYHOOK flights, in the early 1950s the ONR began Project ROCKOON, in which high-altitude balloons were used as a "first stage" for sounding rockets, providing an altitude boost. Most of the research conducted by this program was under the direction of Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa. There were a total of 142 ROCKOON flights from 21 August 1952 to 8 November 1957. Four different sounding rocket configurations were used:

The ROCKOONs were sea-launched from US Coast Guard and US Navy vessels over the Atlantic and Pacific, with the sounding rockets attaining a maximum altitude of about 91 kilometers (300,000 feet) during the flights. The US Air Force (USAF) also got into the ROCKOON business, launching six "Farside" rockets in 1957, using a four-stage solid-rocket booster to send an instrument payload to an altitude of thousands of kilometers. However, for various reasons, the Farside flights obtained no useful data.

In modern times a US-based amateur organization named JP Aerospace has performed high-altitude ROCKOON flights of their own, lofting small rockets on clusters of balloons. There has also been some investigation of using ROCKOONs to perform small satellite launches.



* While the Navy was tinkering with SKYHOOK, the US Air Force (USAF) was working on their own series of balloon flights. In the late 1940s, the Air Force conducted MOGUL, which was intended to detect nuclear blasts from the propagation of sound waves through the upper atmosphere. Early MOGUL flights involved trains of small weather balloons up to about 185 meters (600 feet) in length. The train carried a measurement payload as well as "corner reflectors", kitelike structures covered with aluminum foil to allow the balloon system to be tracked on radar. Later MOGUL flights used the large polyethylene balloons developed for SKYHOOK.

As with SKYHOOK, MOGUL balloons were sometimes reported as UFOs, with the early trains of balloons sometimes identified as UFOs flying in formation. In fact, the mother of all UFO reports was a MOGUL balloon. MOGUL flights were conducted from the air base at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in June and July 1947; on 4 June 1947, one came back to Earth at a sheep ranch at Roswell. MOGUL was a secret program, in fact it wouldn't be declassified until 1972, and the military kept a security lid on the incident.

Eventually, the story would mutate to tell that an alien spacecraft had crashed, with the military seizing the crew, including some survivors. The remains of the UFO supposedly included "alien hieroglyphics". A New York University researcher who worked on MOGUL said that the radar reflectors were built under government contract by a New York toy company and featured a distinctive decorative tape printed with purple or pink flowers and other amusing figures. Conspiracy theorists insist that it's all a cover-up.

* Although MOGUL was a dead end in itself, in 1950 an Air Force advisory board suggested that high-altitude balloons might be used to perform spy flights over the Soviet Union. The program was approved and initially named GOPHER, the first in a very confusing series of codenames. Demonstration flights began in early 1951, but the new high-altitude balloon technology was still immature, and though the plan was to move on very quickly to operational flights, nothing went right. There were also resource battles between the Navy's SKYHOOK program and the GOPHER effort.

By the end of 1951, GOPHER had accomplished very little. However, in the spring of that year, another USAF balloon program named MOBY DICK had been initiated, with the objective of mapping high-altitude wind currents. (The program was named MOBY DICK because Herman Melville's novel of that name had been first published a century earlier, in 1851.) MOBY DICK would do much to get GOPHER on track.

A sophisticated gondola system was developed for the MOBY DICK balloons, using the Japanese fusen bakudan technology as a starting point. The gondola was the size of a small crate and had a weight of 68 kilograms (150 pounds). A hopper was attached to each side of the gondola to carry a total of 113 kilograms (250 pounds) of ballast, in the form of very fine steel shot.

The gondola's operational payload was a radio transmitter that allowed the balloon to be tracked in the winds. The transmitter broadcast a balloon ID code, the balloon's altitude, and the amount of ballast remaining. It was powered by a 6-volt automotive lead-acid battery, with the transmitter operating on a 30 seconds on / 90 seconds off duty cycle to conserve battery power. The payload was thermally insulated by layers of styrofoam and aluminum foil, to keep it from freezing up; cans of water were also carried as a "thermal mass" to help maintain constant temperature. The gondola was fitted with flashing strobe lights to prevent collisions with aircraft at night. The gondola would be cut loose from the balloon at the end of the mission, to fall to earth under a small parachute.

Each ballast hopper was normally held closed with a permanent magnet. When a barometer detected that the balloon was too low, it would activate an electromagnet to override the permanent magnet, dumping shot. This configuration ensured that a power failure wouldn't dump all the ballast. When the gondola was cut loose, all the ballast was automatically dumped.

The balloon control system was designed to ensure that the MOBY DICK balloons didn't interfere with air traffic. A timer was set at launch that would cut the gondola loose and terminate the mission after 100 minutes if the balloon hadn't reached 8,540 meters (28,000 feet). The mission would be automatically terminated after three days, or if the balloon descended below 8,540 meters before that time. The gondola carried a message in English, Spanish, and French indicating that a $25 USD reward would be paid for its return, with shipping paid collect. The message stated in bold letters that the equipment was NOT dangerous. Large numbers of balloons were to be launched under the MOBY DICK program, and a support squadron was formed up to handle the operation.

* MOBY DICK's plan envisioned year-round daily balloon flights. During the winter, prevailing high-altitude winds blew to the east, and so balloons would be launched from three West Coast sites: Naval Air Station (NAS) Vernalis, California; NAS Tillamook, Oregon; and Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California. In the summer, the prevailing winds would change direction, so the launches would be from Sedalia AFB in Missouri and Moody AFB in Georgia. Tracking was initially performed by the US Navy and the USAF Airways & Air Communications Service, though later the gondolas were equipped with gear that allowed them to be tracked by US Federal Communications Commission monitoring stations. The tracks would be plotted at a central control center at Lowry AFB, near Denver, Colorado.

The first MOBY DICK launch was on 19 February 1953. The new polyethylene balloons were far superior to the high-altitude balloons of the 1930s, but they did have a serious limitation. Although the polyethylene envelope was strong for its weight, the polyethylene film was very thin -- such balloons would later be called "flying sandwich bags" -- and inflation had to be performed with care to avoid tearing. Launches could only be performed in calm winds. The USAF figured out a scheme for launching MOBY DICK balloons in winds that would have otherwise prevented launches, using what was referred to as a "covered wagon" -- a trailer with tall sides and a canvas top in which the balloon could be initially inflated. Once the balloon reached a certain size, the canvas top was released to allow the balloon to pop up into the air; the inflation procedure was completed, and the balloon then released into the sky.

640 MOBY DICK balloons were launched up to the end of the program on 30 June 1954. For whatever reasons, a range of different balloon configurations was used during the program, with balloon diameters ranging from 15 meters (49 feet) to 25 meters (83 feet), and shapes including cylinders; a "classic" sphere with conical base; and a "natural" shape like an inverted pear that equalized stresses on the thin envelope. Operating altitude typically ranged from 15,250 to 22,900 meters (50,000 to 75,000 feet), though a small number were flown at lower altitudes. Typical mission duration was 20 hours, but some came down in 10 hours and one made it to 92 hours. Most landed in North America, with a few wanderers crossing the Atlantic: one reached Spain and another reached Scotland. People were highly conscientious about returning the gondolas for the reward, with an Indian in Mexico bringing one to the US consulate on a burro.

* While the Air Force worked on MOBY DICK, a parallel effort was conducted by the service to develop a balloon bomber capability, along the lines of the Japanese fusen bakudan. Initial proposals were put forward in late 1952, with a formal program designated "Weapon System 124A (WS-124A)", codenamed FLYING CLOUD, initiated in March 1953.

The objective was to develop a hydrogen-filled attack balloon to perform missions over ranges of up to 2,775 kilometers (1,500 NMI) at an altitude 11,770 meters (38,600 feet), with durations of up to 60 hours. Launch methods were to be developed to allow balloon missions to be conducted in all but the worst weather. The balloons were to carry chemical or biological agent payloads. Chemicals would be dispersed in cluster bomb units; some sources claim that the biological payloads consisted of turkey feathers salted with pathogens, with the feathers to be dumped into the wind to form a plume. Apparently crop pathogens -- fungal infections such as wheat rusts and rice blasts -- were regarded as the most promising payloads.

41 FLYING CLOUD flights were performed in the fall of 1954. Even though the target area was defined in broad terms, accuracy was still low, with only 24% of the flights on target. A report issued in August 1955 judged the concept a nonstarter; given that the US had a nuclear deterrent, the FLYING CLOUD scheme was absurd. However, work on US reconnaissance balloon systems continued.



* Although the GOPHER reconnaissance balloon effort had proven discouraging, the MOBY DICK program demonstrated that the technology seemed to be available to do the job, and so in June 1953 a decision was made to go to full-scale development. The program was redesignated GRANDSON.

GRANDSON tests were conducted into August 1954. The major emphasis was on photographic reconnaissance, though there was also interest in conducting "signals intelligence (SIGINT)" -- getting data on Soviet radars and other "emitters" using a "ferret" balloon payload. With tests completed, the effort moved on to developing an operational system, with the program redesignated once more, to GRAYBACK. The operational system was given the formal designation of "Weapons System 119L (WS-119L)". Some sources claim that the use of the "Weapon System" designation was a cover, but the military considers surveillance and reconnaissance platforms as "weapon systems" though they don't actually shoot at anyone.

During 1955, US President Eisenhower presented a proposal to the USSR named "Open Skies", in which the two countries would be free to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other's territory to ensure that neither was planning for war. The Soviets rejected the concept, mainly because they did not want to reveal the extent of their actual weakness relative to the West. It seems that the rejection was expected, and Open Skies ended up being little more than a propaganda exercise to embarrass the Soviets. However, the US still needed to obtain intelligence on the Soviet Union, and WS-119L was an option that seemed almost ready to go. Unfortunately, the program was suffering from delays. Training flights over the US had been initiated in May 1955 under the cover name of MOBY DICK HI, but results were poor, with a variety of problems plaguing the program.

The problems were resolved. Eisenhower had doubts about the balloon reconnaissance program, but sample imagery provided by the test flights over the US convinced him to give the go-ahead in late 1955. The program was renamed yet another time, to GENETRIX. A parallel program, WHITE CLOUD, was to perform balloon flights over North America as a cover for the reconnaissance effort. Some sources have suggested that the military deliberately encouraged UFO reports to provide another level of cover -- in hopes of tricking the Soviets into believing that they were being overflown by aliens and not Americans -- but such claims sound more imaginative than convincing.

* Two types of balloons were used for WS-119L, one having an inflated diameter of 20 meters (66 feet) and the other a diameter of 39 meters (128 feet). They were inflated with hydrogen for additional lifting power. The flammability didn't matter, in fact it was all for the good: if a helium balloon was hit by a shell, it would simply leak and drift to ground where it could be captured, but if a hydrogen balloon was hit, it would light up and crash, hopefully shattering the gondola into bits.

The gondola carried by the WS-119L balloons was about the size of a refrigerator. It was heavily insulated with styrofoam to both protect it from the cold at high altitude and to allow it to float if it came down in water. It included a control system much like that used in MOBY DICK to sequence flight operations and dispense ballast, in the form of fine steel shot stored in hoppers at each end of the gondola. The gondola was recovered by parachute, snagged out of the sky by a Fairchild C-119 "Flying Boxcar" cargo aircraft trailing a snare loop.

There were two reconnaissance cameras in the gondola, each with 500 frames of oversized high-resolution film, with the camera views angled off to each side to ensure a wide swath of coverage. The cameras would take a shot every few minutes. A small 16 millimeter camera with a wide-angle lens was used to take low-resolution shots for registering the high-resolution images; the 16 millimeter camera imagery also recorded the balloon's altitude and other data. The gondola was spun slowly by a motor to ensure 360 degree coverage. A photocell system turned off the cameras when it was too dark to take pictures. Development work had been performed on a SIGINT payload, but it wasn't ready in time.

The control system included four timers:

The recovery aircraft would send a code to the control system to tell it to drop the gondola for retrieval. The gondola would parachute down, releasing bundles of aluminum strips or "chaff" to make it more visible on radar.

There were four launch sites for the balloons, one each in Norway, Scotland, West Germany, and Turkey. A new launch system had been developed for the effort, which involved feeding the balloon through a set of rollers as it was inflated through a polyethylene tube connected to the top, with the inflated portion bobbing in the air away from the ground and the uninflated portion remaining taut as it was fed through the rollers. The roller method would become standard for inflating large polyethylene balloons from then on.

The first batch, of nine balloons, was launched on 10 January 1956, with eight launched from Turkey and one from Germany. One failed shortly after launch, but the other eight went on their way. More were launched on the following days, and on 13 January the recovery squadron, deployed in Japan and Alaska, picked up three radio beacon signals. All three of the payloads were successfully recovered.

In the first two weeks of operations, 219 balloons were launched, with 52 reaching the recovery zone and the majority of these being recovered. There were cases when the balloon wouldn't drop the gondola, and some cases where a C-119 missed the snatch, in which case a helicopter was sent in if possible to pick up the gondola from the ground or sea. The Soviets didn't protest until 4 February, but by then few of the balloons were getting through; they had clearly figured out some means of shooting them down. Eisenhower ordered the overflights terminated on 6 February 1956, though the program itself wasn't shut down until 1 March. About 448 balloons had been launched, with about 40 gondolas recovered. The balloons had returned some useful imagery, but their haphazard flight paths made the "catch" a matter of sheer luck.

Even as WS-119L was underway, the US was working on a better surveillance system, the high-flying Lockheed U-2 spyplane, which made its first overflight of the USSR on 4 July 1956. The Soviets were just as angry about the U-2 overflights, but despite great efforts they didn't finally shoot one down until 1 May 1960, after anti-aircraft missiles had gone into widespread service.

* The Air Force was not finished with balloons just yet. In 1957, the service conducted a MOBY DICK V program -- the "V" is a bit confusing since there's no details of MOBY DICK II, III, or IV programs -- to conduct high-altitude wind studies.

Another military balloon program was conducted in 1956 and 1957, involving the use of balloons to sample radioactive fallout at high altitude. Development of this scheme began in 1955, with initial test launches in 1956 from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the Panama Canal Zone, followed by operational launches from Lowry, Larson, and Vincent AFBs stateside in 1957 and 1958. The effort had two components: ASH CAN involved payloads that filtered fallout from the air, while GRAB BAG captured complete air samples. The balloons used in the effort ranged in diameter from 14.6 meters (48 feet) to 39 meters (128 feet). The payloads weighed 136 kilograms (300 pounds) and featured a control system derived from that of the GENETRIX balloons, but with a single ballast hopper.

* In the meantime, the US Air Force was gearing up for a second-phase balloon reconnaissance offensive against the USSR. The WS-119L balloons had proven relatively easy to intercept, since they operated at an altitude of 16,750 meters (55,000 feet), within reach of Soviet air defenses, and so the decision was made to develop a more capable balloon reconnaissance system under the "WS-461L" or MELTING POT program. The new balloons would operate at 30,500 meters (100,000 feet) and carry an improved reconnaissance system built around a HYAC-1 high-resolution film camera. The balloon missions would have an endurance of up to a month, allowing them to fly around the world; they used a new scheme that leveraged off solar heating of the balloon envelope to maintain a relatively constant altitude with minimal dumping of lifting gas and ballast. The scheme became known as "Radiation Controlled Balloon (RACOON)".

Exactly what the Air Force brass involved with MELTING POT were thinking is difficult to determine. GENETRIX had clearly been a bad idea, and MELTING POT seemed only like throwing good after bad. It appears that the Air Force was less concerned about the USSR than the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which had been conducting high-altitude reconnaissance overflights of Red territory since 1956 with the Lockheed U-2 spyplane. Air Force brass wanted a strategic reconnaissance capability to counter the CIA's U-2, and were not too concerned as to how credible a capability it was.

When Eisenhower got wind of MELTING POT, he immediately ordered it killed. The order was simply ignored. Three MELTING POT balloons were launched in July 1958 from a small "jeep" carrier, the USS WINDHAM BAY, from off the east coast of Japan. Due to various bungles, all three dropped their gondolas while over Communist territory. The next thing the president knew, he was getting an angry protest from the Kremlin.

Eisenhower had a very hot temper that he tried to keep under control, but that was too much. He called up the Pentagon and lit into Deputy Defense Secretary Donald Quarles, saying that if he had been the military officer who had pulled such a stunt, he would have shot himself, and suggested that a few heads needed to roll, that people either needed to obey orders or get the hell out of the service.

Whose heads rolled is not clear, but there would be no more strategic balloon reconnaissance flights. Although MELTING POT amounts to a comedy in hindsight, the reconnaissance payload would be leveraged into the early US CORONA reconnaissance satellites, which proved a much more effective reconnaissance system. The CORONA satellites returned film imagery to Earth in re-entry capsules or "buckets" that popped out parachutes, to be snagged by recovery aircraft using the techniques developed for the balloon reconnaissance programs. Both the US and the USSR began to fly satellites to spy on each other on a regular basis, with no serious protests by either side, making Eisenhower's Open Skies proposal a practical reality.

* As a footnote to the balloon reconnaissance effort of the 1950s, there was also a large-scale program conducted by Radio Free Europe (RFE) to send propaganda eastward by balloon. Initial launches were in 1951, using war-surplus weather balloons, but later efforts used very cheap balloons manufactured for the purpose. The balloons were about 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter, looked like inflated polyethylene clothes bags, and carried what looked like a shoebox with leaflets, books, or posters in it.

RFE balloons

A total of 350,000 propaganda balloons was launched. The balloon operations were halted in 1956 because RFE obtained a more powerful transmitter system with very long range. One of the other reasons may have been the crash of a Czech airliner in that year, which Red propaganda claimed was due to the balloons, though there was skepticism that the small and flimsy balloons posed any more of a threat to air traffic than ordinary weather balloons did. An American evangelist named Billy James Hargis also conducted his own balloon propaganda offensive, roughly in parallel with the RFE's, with the leaflets containing Biblical quotes.

* As another footnote, Russian sources claim that balloon reconnaissance missions over the USSR continued into the 1970s and beyond. According to Russian records, 1975 was a particularly active year for balloon activities, with 16 recorded intrusions and 13 balloons shot down. These claims that are not supported by what has been released about the US balloon reconnaissance effort. The records of encounters between Soviet interceptor aircraft and balloons are detailed and specific, and there's no good reason to doubt they happened -- but what were the balloons doing over the Soviet Union?

It seems plausible that the Soviets were excitably chasing after weather and research balloons that had strayed into their airspace, though it is of course difficult to rule out the existence of another "black" reconnaissance balloon program that hasn't been declassified yet. However, the puzzle then is what the mission might have been, since by the 1970s space reconnaissance was well-developed and the 1950s balloon reconnaissance effort had been an embarrassing bust; if the balloons were part of a reconnaissance program, it must have been a specialized one. Who knows? Maybe it was an effort to probe Soviet air defenses, and the balloons were supposed to be shot down.

Another possibility is that the balloons were launched by private organizations in various countries. From 2003, a South Korean activist group has been sending balloons carrying a package of cheap little radios, clothing, and propaganda pamphlets into North Korea, much to the irritation of the government in Pyongyang. Considering that the cost of such a "balloon offensive" is well within the reach of private groups of modest means, such efforts may have been conducted outside of official channels and off the record books.



* The US Navy's SKYHOOK program involved a set of STRATOSCOPE missions, which performed a series of astronomical observations from high altitude, above the obscuring effects of most of the atmosphere. The first missions in the STRATOSCOPE series involved flying a remote-controlled telescope with a diameter of 30 centimeters (a foot), with initial flight in 1957. STRATOSCOPE was followed by STRATOSCOPE II, which was much more sophisticated, with a 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope and advanced control system. Flights began in 1963 and continued into the early 1970s. Several flights were also performed in the early 1960s carrying a "coronograph" to observe the Sun's corona under the CORONASCOPE program.


The autonomous high-altitude balloon flights of the 1950s also led to a final series of crewed balloon flights. In the mid-1950s interest arose in crewed space flight, and balloon missions were seen as a precursor to blasting astronauts into orbit, supporting the development of space life-support systems and examining possible hazards in space flight.

The US Navy set up a crewed balloon program designated Project STRATOLAB in 1954 as part of the SKYHOOK effort. The first two STRATOLAB flights took Navy Lieutenant Commanders Malcolm Ross and Morton Lewis to over 12,200 meters (40,000 feet) in an open gondola. A few months later, on 8 November 1956, they went up in a pressurized gondola under a balloon with a capacity of 56,635 cubic meters (200,000 cubic feet) to a record altitude of 23,170 meters (76,000 feet) -- though technical problems force them to descend before they could do any real research.

The USAF, not to be outdone, set up their own crewed high-altitude balloon effort, Project MAN-HIGH, in 1955. The first balloonist on the MAN-HIGH missions was USAF test pilot Captain Joseph W. Kittinger JR. He rode in a pressurized gondola that was kindly characterized as "low tech", having been put together from available materials and gear. The gondola was an aluminum cylinder about 0.9 meters in diameter, 2.1 meters long (3 by 7 feet), and weighing 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds).

On 2 June 1957, Kittinger was carried aloft by a balloon envelope with a volume of 186,000 cubic meters (2,000,000 cubic feet) to reach an altitude of 29,270 meters (96,000 feet). He found the whole experience such a thrill that when he was ordered to descend, he replied: "Come and get me." The second MAN-HIGH flight, on 19 August 1957, took USAF Major David G. Simons to 30,950 meters (101,516 feet) during a 32 hour mission. The final flight, MAN-HIGH III, took place on 8 October 1958 and took Lieutenant Clifton McClure to 29,900 meters (98,000 feet).

Kittinger's next high-altitude flights were associated with another military project named HIGH-DIVE, which had been established in 1953 to investigate parachute drops from high altitude. A total of 140 parachute jumps was performed under HIGH-DIVE, with researchers learning that a parachutist could go into a lethally rapid flat spin while falling; a small chute was developed to keep the parachutist stable until the main parachute could be deployed.

HIGH-DIVE ended with three spectacular EXCELSIOR flights. Joe Kittinger took the EXCELSIOR I balloon to 23,150 meters (76,000 feet) on 16 November 1959 and bailed out. The exercise was almost fatal: the little stabilizer chute got snarled, forcing him into a spin that knocked him out, and the only thing that saved his life was the fact that his backup chute opened automatically at low altitude. On 11 December 1959, Kittinger took the EXCELSIOR II balloon to 22,769 meters (74,700 feet) and jumped again, this time encountering no serious problems. On 16 August 1960, Kittinger took the EXCELSIOR III balloon to 31,100 meters (102,000 feet). He then jumped out, approaching Mach 1 during the fall. It was the highest parachute jump to the end of the 20th century.

The Navy broke the altitude record on 4 May 1961, when Ross, now a full commander, rode the STRATOLAB V balloon along with Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather to 34,765 meters (113,740 feet) in a test of spacesuits for the American crewed space program. STRATOLAB V was the biggest piloted balloon ever flown, with a volume of 283,170 cubic meters (10 million cubic feet), and it was the highest balloon flight performed with a human crew in the 20th century. The flight ended in tragedy, however, when the balloon dropped into the Gulf of Mexico and Prather drowned when he fell out of a helicopter pickup harness.


The USAF mounted the service's last major scientific balloon flight, a crewed astronomical mission named Project STARGAZER, on 13:14 December 1962, with Kittinger and astronomer William C. White performing telescopic observations from an altitude of over 25,000 meters (82,000 feet). Satellites and astronauts were being shot into orbit by that time, and interest in scientific ballooning faded for about a decade. After a total of five high-altitude balloon flights, Kittinger went back to flying warplanes, seeing service in the Vietnam War, where he was shot down and made a prisoner of war for 11 months. He kept his wits about him in confinement by thinking over a global balloon flight.

* The USSR also performed a series of crewed balloon flights in the late 1950s and early 1960s under the "Volga" program to evaluate space suits and other space technologies. The Soviet effort faded out about the same time as the parallel US effort, and was also marked by a tragedy.

On 1 November 1962, two experienced Red Air Force parachutists, Major Yevgenny Andreyev and Colonel Pyotr Dolgov, were sent up in a high-altitude balloon to test survival systems for the Vostok crewed space capsule. Andreyev was to test a new non-explosive Vostok ejection seat, wearing a conventional military high-altitude pressure suit; he punched out at 24,460 meters (83,500 feet) and landed safely. Dolgov was wearing a full space suit and his jump was to test its integrity; he punched out at 28,640 meters (93,970 feet). His parachute did deploy, but the recovery team found him quite dead. The faceplate had hit the gondola on the way out and cracked, with the suit depressurizing at high altitude.