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Is It an Bullet? A Robot? No, It’s a Balloon Gondola!

Posted by Laurie Frost on July 21, 2009


credit for all photos/illustrations in this post: United States Air Force. [Explanation of public domain status.]

How would you like to spend 32 hours in this thing, 101,516 feet above the ground, suspended from a plastic balloon? That’s how by Maj. David Simons spent August 19-20, 1957, during one of the three flights conducted as part of the US Air Force’s MANHIGH program, designed

to obtain scientific data on the behavior of a balloon in an environment above 99 percent of the earth’s atmosphere. It also investigated cosmic rays and their effects on humans….

During the MANHIGH II flight, Maj. Simons flew the pressurized capsule on display on a 32-hour flight to 101,516 feet, thereby establishing an altitude record for manned balloons. Including the pilot and scientific equipment, the gondola weighed 1,648 pounds. At maximum altitude, the plastic balloon expanded to a diameter of 200 feet with a volume in excess of 3,000,000 cubic feet. PROJECT MANHIGH provided important information about the effects of high-altitude flight on humans in small capsules like those that would be flown in space.090304-F-1234P-004

Not a lot of amenities on this 32-hour flight. The photograph [below] of the control panel on the gondola’s interior makes the chamber seem spacious, compared to the artist’s illustration [above].090109-F-1234S-009

And finally, a picture of the balloon and gondola photographed by the Air Force seconds after launch.  According to the caption of the online exhibit of MANHIGH, “as the balloon climbed, the outside air pressure decreased, and the gas within the balloon expanded to fill the envelope.”090304-F-1234P-003

The MANHIGH gondola is on display in theMissile and Space Gallery of the National Museum of the US Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.  Also on display is the Stargazer gondola. 050328-F-1234P-013The Stargazer Project  (1959-1962), developed to allow  high altitude astronomical observations, also

provided valuable information relative to the development of pressure suits and associated life support systems during an extended period on the edge of space.

The balloon that supported the Stargazer capsule was a 280-foot diameter sphere of mylar film; however, at launch only a comparatively small bubble of helium gas occupied the top of the balloon with the remainder of the balloon envelope dangling beneath. As the balloon rose, the gas expanded, filling the balloon until at maximum altitude, it was completely filled and reshaped the envelope into a sphere. The gondola was supported below the balloon on a cable giving a total height at takeoff of approximately 400 feet. 

A replica of the gondola used in Project Excelsior is on display at the museum. This project (1958-1960) investigated parachute escapes at high altitudes:

As Project Excelsior did not have the resources to use high performance aircraft to test the new escape system, a balloon gondola was designed and built by the skilled staff at Wright Field to carry the pilot to the desired altitudes for the tests. The balloon held nearly 3 million cubic feet of helium to lift the open gondola high into the stratosphere.

On the third and last jump in Excelsior III on Aug. 16, 1960, Capt. [Joseph W.] Kittinger jumped from a height of 102,800 feet, almost 20 miles above the earth. With only the small stabilizing chute deployed, Capt. Kittinger fell for 4 minutes, 36 seconds. He experienced temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit and a maximum speed of 614 miles per hour, exceeding the speed of sound. The 28-foot main parachute did not open until Capt. Kittinger reached the much thicker atmosphere at 17,500 feet. Capt. Kittinger safely landed in the New Mexico desert after a 13 minute, 45 second descent.050328-F-1234P-014050419-F-1234P-036


Excelsior balloon launch in New Mexico.


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