Historic program took brave crews to lofty heights

  • Published
  • By Airman Ashley J. Cass
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
While Ellsworth's achievements over the base's 70-year history are widely recognized, few may know that Rapid City played a significant role in aviation history before the base even existed.

The U.S. Army Air Corps and the National Geographic Society teamed up to test the limits of science and human resilience when they launched their Explorer I and II balloons in the early 1930s at the Stratobowl in the Black Hills near Rapid City.

The two balloons were designed as part of a program to reach new heights in the atmosphere and to collect scientific data, including information on the Earth's curvature and how human bodies would react to conditions in the stratosphere.

Greg Kennedy, education programs director for the National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Penn., said the gondolas suspended from the polyethylene plastic balloons housed a crew of two or three men and various scientific instruments used to conduct their research.

"Having pilots who were not trained scientists conducting observations and reporting back to a panel on the ground who was directing the observations was something that had never been done before," Kennedy said.

Master Sgt. Eric Grim, South Dakota Air and Space Museum director, said one objective of the balloon flights was to see how far up into the atmosphere they could reach.

"They wanted to see how high they could go," Grim said. "They wanted to learn as much as they could about the stratosphere without actually going into outer space."

That dream almost became a nightmare when the first flight, on July 28, 1934, nearly ended in tragedy.

U.S. Army Air Corps Maj. William Kepner, along with 1st Lt. Orvil Anderson and Capt. Albert Stevens, manned the Explorer I balloon that had a diameter of 178 feet, and a volume of 3,000,000 cubic feet.

The crew had reached 63,000 feet before realizing there was a rip in the fabric of their balloon. They began a rapid descent, jettisoning instruments in an attempt to slow their approach to Earth.

Less than a mile from the ground, the three men jumped from the gondola and survived to fly another day. Although they had discarded some of their equipment on the way down, the barograph recording the altitude of the flight and the spectrograph that contained the film of the pictures took during the flight both survived the ordeal.

Kennedy said, given the circumstances, it's easy to imagine how something like that could have happened.

"The balloons were very fragile," Kennedy said. "They also had to deal with keeping life supported in the gondola, the high winds and predicting landing points. There were a lot of logistics involved."

Regrouping from their near-death experience, Anderson and Stevens gave balloon travel one more shot inside Explorer II.

The goal of reaching the stratosphere in a balloon was finally realized on Nov. 11, 1935, when the two pilots steered their craft to an astounding 72,395 feet.

Aside from scientific experiments, logistics managing and overcoming environmental effects, the crew of the Explorer balloons also kept up a dialogue with the public.

"They had clear radio contact with people on the ground through NBC," Grim said. "People listened to the details of their flight from as far away as South Africa, Australia and London."

Kennedy said various standards that pilots must meet today, as well as some procedures for collecting and transmitting medical data, can be traced back to vessels like the Explorer I and II.

"Operational techniques that are used today were first tested in balloon flights," Kennedy said. "Physical standards for astronauts were first tested in balloon flights."

In addition to contributing to future aerospace procedures, the flights of the Explorer balloons also put the U.S. Army Air Corps and Rapid City on the front lines of the race into outer space.

Grim said many people in the Rapid City area don't even know about the colorful history that surrounds them.

"Space flight started in South Dakota," Grim said. "The Stratobowl was our Cape Canaveral."

Kennedy said the balloon flights are some of the least documented milestones in space flight history.

"A lot of what these guys did went unnoticed," Kennedy said. "We need to revise our considerations of space flight a little to acknowledge them. They were pioneers who are as important as anyone else who contributed to space flight."