WIN­NING THE STRATOBOWL

Air & Space Smithsonian - - In The Museum - —ROGER A. MOLA

THE FIRST AMER­I­CANS REACHED the strato­sphere on Novem­ber 20, 1933, as­cend­ing from Akron, Ohio, to a record 61,237 feet, but the crew drifted to Bridgeton, New Jer­sey, be­fore splash­ing into a swamp. Not sur­pris­ingly, when the Na­tional Geo­graphic So­ci­ety and the U.S. Army Air Corps jointly spon­sored the next at­tempt, wind drift was a con­cern.

But the Air Corps found a box canyon—in the Black Hills near Rapid City, South Dakota—with lime­stone walls ris­ing 400 feet on three sides that could shield the bal­loon from wind un­til it was fully in­flated, and its lines safely ex­tended to their full length.

Be­fore dawn on July 28, 1934, the bal­loon was filled with hy­dro­gen gas as 30,000 spec­ta­tors hiked in to watch. It car­ried the Ex­plorer pres­sur­ized gon­dola, more than eight feet in di­am­e­ter and built by Dow Chem­i­cal, to 63,000 feet be­fore the en­ve­lope tore. The crew plum­meted to 5,000 feet be­fore they be­gan to bail out. All three nar­rowly es­caped—and even man­aged to toss out the spec­tro­graph which had an­a­lyzed the sun—just as the re­main­ing hy­dro­gen burst into flame. The men were awarded the Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Cross.

Dow welded a new gon­dola for Ex­plorer II with larger port­holes for es­cape, us­ing a mag­ne­sium-alu­minum al­loy it called Dowmetal. Dow took a rolled sheet, cut it like an or­ange peel, and welded the slices to a one-piece air­tight ball with a nine-foot di­am­e­ter and a weight of 638 pounds. On Novem­ber 11, 1935, in Ex­plorer II, Cap­tains Al­bert W. Stevens and Orvil An­der­son as­cended from the canyon, now known as the Stratobowl, to a new record of 72,395 feet, this time lifted by a bal­loon filled with the much safer he­lium, and floated more than 80 min­utes above South Dakota. Cap­tain Stevens snapped the first photo show­ing the cur­va­ture of the Earth.

A ge­o­logic for­ma­tion be­came the per­fect launch­pad for flights into the strato­sphere.

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