Malcolm Ross (balloonist) - Balloon Flights

Balloon Flights

The following table describes Malcolm Ross's balloon flights.

Date Altitude Comments
August 10, 1956 40,000 feet (12,000 m) With Lieutenant Commander M. L. Lewis (United States Navy), made the first stratospheric manned flight on an Office of Naval Research Strato-Lab polyethylene balloon. The purpose of this flight was to study airplane vapor trails.
November 8, 1956 76,000 feet (23,000 m) With Lieutenant Commander M. L. Lewis (USN), established a world altitude record in the plastic ONR 56,634 cubic meter Strato-Lab High I balloon, breaking the 21-year old record set by Explorer II. They took off at 6:19 from South Dakota's Stratobowl, a natural depression shielded by 500 foot (150 m) hills near Rapid City. They landed four hours and four minutes later, after drifting 175 miles (282 km), 18 miles (29 km) southwest of Kennedy, Nebraska. The flight broke the previous altitude record of 72,394 feet (22,066 m) set in 1935 by O.A. Anderson and A.W. Stevens, who also took off from the Stratobowl. The flight was punctuated by a 14 and 1/3 mile plunge from their flight ceiling after an automatic valve malfunctioned and released gas from the balloon. They were able to slow their descent and make a safe landing by dumping all 300 pounds of ballast along with 200 pounds of equipment.

The purpose of the flight was to gather meteorological, cosmic ray, and other scientific data necessary to improve safety at high altitudes. This was the first time that the sky overhead was seen as black. It also demonstrated the feasibility of man-carrying stratospheric balloon flights using light and relatively inexpensive polyethelene plastic balloons. The Strato-Lab I balloon was 128 feet (39 m) in diameter and, including valves, weighed 595 pounds (270 kg). The previous 1935 record-breaking flight used a rubberized-cotton envelope that was 192 feet (59 m) in diameter and weighed 5,916 pounds (2,683 kg). For this record ascent, the balloonists were awarded the 1956 Harmon Trophy for Aeronauts.

June 27, 1957 With atmospheric physicist Charles B. Moore, successfully ascended in a Strato-Lab balloon from the top of Mount Withington, near Socorro, New Mexico, into a cumulus cloud to investigate the interior of a thunderstorm. The flight was the first of a series conducted during the summer under the sponsorship of the Office of Naval Research and the Bureau of Aeronautics.
October 18, 1957 85,700 feet (26,100 m) With Lieutenant Commander M. L. Lewis (USN), made a 10-hour flight into the stratosphere. The balloonists carried equipment to photograph Sputnik, but were unable to make visual contact with the Soviet space satellite. The Air Force program, Project Manhigh, had by this time reached 101,516 feet (30,942 m) feet, but Ross and Lewis ascended to an unofficial two-man altitude record of 85,700 feet (26,100 m) feet in a Strato-Lab High II balloon. The flight lasted 10 hours.
May 6, 1958 – May 7, 1958 40,000 feet (12,000 m) With Alfred H. Mikesell (United States Naval Observatory), ascended in an open gondola under a 72 foot (22 m) diameter polyethylene balloon at 8:01 CDT from the Mangnan-Joann open pit mine, near Ironton, Minnesota. The balloon reached nearly 40,000 feet (12,000 m) 30 minues later and remained at that altitude until starting to descend at 10:20 to 10,000 to 15,000 feet (3000–4600 m) for the remainder of the night. The balloon drifted 325 miles (523 km) in 11 hours and 25 minutes before landing at 7:26 on an alfalfa field 8 miles (13 km) east-southeast of Dubuque, Iowa.

Alfred Mikesell was the first astronomer to make telescopic observations from the stratosphere. It was also the first flight in which a crew remained in the stratosphere in an open gondola after sunset. The purpose of the flight was to discover where the atmosphere created scintillation (twinkling) of starlight.

The parameters of the flight were defined by the expectation that the scintillation was introduced at the tropopause. This defined the height and season of the flight, because the height of the tropopause changes seasonally. The flight was therefore designed to go to 40,000 feet (12,000 m) — the necessary data might not have been available any lower, but any higher was deemed too risky. The findings of this flight are incorporated in modern telescope design.

July 26, 1958 – July 27, 1958 82,000 feet (25,000 m) With Lieutenant Commander M. L. Lewis (USN), lifted in the Strato-Lab High III gondola at 4:41 from the Hanna Iron Mine, near Crosby, Minnesota. The flight set a new unofficial record for stratospheric flight of 34 hours 20 minutes. The balloon carried a record load of 5,500 pounds (2,500 kg). The primary purpose of the flight was to test and evaluate the sealed cabin system, which was designed to carry an externally-mounted telescope for observation of the atmosphere of Venus. It therefore served as an operational and logistic rehearsal for future flights.

The balloon stabilized at an initial ceiling of 79,500 feet (24,200 m) at 7:40 . Ross and Lewis remained in the stratosphere near that altitude throughout the day, although by 10:00 they descended to 68,500 feet (20,900 m) while dropping 350 pounds (160 kg) of batteries. By 10:30 they were able to stabilize at 70,000 feet (21,000 m) after dropping another 98 pounds (44 kg) of ballast. At 9:00 the following morning, on July 27, the balloon reached its peak altitude of 82,000 feet (25,000 m). The balloonists began their final descent at 10:25 . The balloon touched down near Jamestown, North Dakota. Due to electrical failures in the ballast control system, they were unable to release additional ballast and impacted somewhat harder than they wished, perhaps 300 to 400 feet (90 to 120 m) per minute. The twin cutoff switches then failed to release the balloon and they ascended again to 4,000–5,000 feet (1220–1525 m). By 3:21 they were able to solve the problem and descended to bounce again before the cutoff switch finally released the balloon.

During the flight, the Ross and Lewis made the first television broadcast from a balloon in the stratosphere. After daybreak on the first day, the balloonists turned on their Dage transitorized television camera in a rack pointed downward through one of the down ports. The television pictures were transmitted to ground and air-born receivers. Later in the morning, Lewis removed the camera from the rack and pointed it at Ross while he was discussing (with a member of the support team flying below in a Navy R5D) repairs that they made using masking tape to fix a pressure leak on one of the two escape hatches. At 1:00, they went on the air to broadcast live for 15 minutes over KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, and possibly other stations on the NBC network. Malcolm Ross described it as "...probably one of the strangest programs that a television audience had ever seen...."

August 10, 1959 38,000 feet (12,000 m) With Robert Cooper (HAO), in an open gondola to make the first observations from a balloon of the Sun's corona with a coronagraph. The balloonists also attempted to measure how sky brightness varied with altitude.
November 28–29, 1959 81,000 feet (25,000 m) Took Charles B. Moore to perform spectrographic analysis of the planet Venus with minimal interference from Earth's atmosphere. The balloonists were lifted by the 2 million cubic feet (57,000 m3) Strato-Lab IV balloon from South Dakota's Stratobowl. The flight lasted 28 hours and 15 minutes. Ross and Moore used a 16-inch telescope and spectrograph to observe water vapor in the atmosphere of the planet Venus, and demonstrated for the first time that an observatory can be taken off the ground.
May 4, 1961 113,740 feet (34.67 km) With Lieutenant Commander Victor A. Prather (United States Navy), he successfully piloted the Strato-Lab V balloon into the stratosphere, setting an altitude record of 113,740 feet (34.67 km). Ross and Prather were wearing the Navy's Mark IV full-pressure suit in a gondola that was protected by venetian blinds, but otherwise open to space. At 10 million cubic feet (280,000 m3), the balloon envelope was the largest ever launched, expanding to 300 feet (91 m) in diameter when fully inflated. The primary objective of the flight was to test the Navy Mark IV full-pressure suit. The suit was manufactured by B. F. Goodrich of neoprene, and weighed only 22 pounds (9.98 kg). The Mark IV suit overcame problems of weight, bulk, ventilation, air and water tightness, mobility, temperature control, and survival capabilities so well that NASA selected a modified version for use by the Project Mercury astronauts. The May 4 flight was the most severe test of the suit that was ever conducted.

The flight lasted 9 hours 54 minutes and covered a horizontal distance of 140 miles (230 km). As of 2012, the 1961 balloon flight absolute altitude record has not been broken. The flight was successful, but Victor Prather drowned during the helicopter transfer after landing. For this record ascent, President John F. Kennedy presented the balloonists (Victor Prather, posthumously to his wife) the 1961 Harmon Trophy for Aeronauts.

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