Tag Archives: Highest Balloon Ascent

18 August 1932

Auguste Piccard loads supplies aboard the gondola of his balloon, 18 August 1932. Aktuelle-Bilder-Centrale, Georg Pahl (Bild 102)
Auguste Piccard loads supplies aboard the gondola of his balloon, 18 August 1932. Aktuelle-Bilder-Centrale, Georg Pahl (Bild 102)

18 August 1932: At 5:04 a.m., Professor Auguste Antoine Piccard and his assistant, Max Cosyns, used a hydrogen-filled balloon to lift their pressurized gondola from Dübendorf Airfield, Zürich, Switzerland, into the stratosphere on an expedition to investigate the upper levels of Earth’s atmosphere and to study cosmic radiation. During the 12 hour flight, Piccard and Cosyns reached an altitude of 16,201 meters (53,153 feet), setting a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude.¹

The expedition was funded by Belgium’s Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS).

Auguste Piccard's balloon being inflated with hydrogen at Dübendorf Flughafen, Zurich, Switzerland, during the night of 17–18 August 1932. (Unattributed)
Auguste Piccard’s balloon being inflated with hydrogen at Dübendorf Flughafen, Zürich, Switzerland, during the night of 17–18 August 1932. (Unattributed)

Piccard’s balloon was made of rubberized cotton fabric. It had a maximum volume of 500,000 cubic feet (14,158 cubic meters) and weighed, by itself, approximately 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms). When it expanded to its maximum size in the upper atmosphere, the diameter was 99 feet (30.2 meters). The gondola was constructed of aluminum and was 7 feet (2.14 meters) in diameter. There were to hatches for entry and exit, and seven port holes.

The outer surface of the spherical gondola was painted half white and half black. This was intended to control interior heat by turning the lighter side toward or away from the sun by means of a small propeller mounted to a horizontal stanchion. Unfortunately for the two aeronauts, this did not work. The hermetically sealed hatches allowed the gondola to maintain the surface atmospheric pressure as it rose into the stratosphere. The air contained inside the aluminum sphere was recycled through a Draeger system of the type used in submarines. This added oxygen to replace that consumed and extracted the carbon dioxide that was exhaled.

The balloon reached the peak altitude at 12:12 p.m. During the ascent, the temperature inside the gondola dropped to 5 °F. (-15 °C.). It landed near Lake Garda in Northern Italy, a little after 3:15 p.m.

This was Piccard’s second ascent into the stratosphere. On 27 May 1931 he and Paul Kipfer lifted off from Augsburg, Germany and rose to a record altitude of 15,781 meters (51,775 feet).  (FAI Record File Number 10634) They landed at the Großer Gurgler Ferner galcier near Obergurgl in the Tyrolian Alps.

Professor Piccard was made Commandeur de l’Ordre de Léopold and Max Cosyns, Chevalier de l’Ordre de Léopold by Albert I, King of the Belgians. Professor made nearly 30 ascents into the upper atmosphere before turning to the exploration of the very deep oceans with his bathyscaphe, Trieste.

Commander of the Order of Leopold, Civil Division.
Commander of the Order of Leopold, Civil Division.

¹ FAI Record File Number 6590

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 August 1960

Captain Kittinger steps out of the Excelsior III gondola, 102,800 feet above the Earth, 7:12 a.m., 16 August 1960. (U.S. Air Force)

16 August 1960: At 7:12 a.m., Captain Joseph William (“Red”) Kittinger II, U.S. Air Force, stepped out of a balloon gondola, 102,800 feet (31,333 meters, 19.47 miles) above the Tularosa Valley, New Mexico. This was his third balloon ascent and high altitude parachute jump during Project Excelsior, a series of experiments to investigate the effects of high altitude bailouts.

For protection at the extreme high altitude—above 99% of the atmosphere—Joe Kittinger wore a modified David Clark Co. MC-3A capstan-type partial-pressure suit and MA-3 helmet. Over this was a coverall garment to keep the pressure suit’s lacings and capstans from catching on anything as he jumped from the balloon gondola. He breathed a combination of 60% oxygen, 20% nitrogen and 20% helium. During the 1 hour, 31 minute ascent, the pressure seal of Kittinger’s right glove failed, allowing his hand to painfully swell with the decreasing atmospheric pressure.

In temperatures as low as -94 °F. (-70 °C.) Captain Kittinger free-fell for 4 minutes, 36 seconds, and reached a speed of 614 miles per hour (988 kilometers per hour). During the free fall descent, he trailed a small drogue parachute for stabilization. His 28-foot (8.5 meter) diameter main parachute opened at 17,500 feet (5,334 meters) and he touched the ground 9 minutes, 9 seconds later. The total duration of Kittinger’s descent was 13 minutes, 45 seconds. For this accomplishment, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (his second) and the Harmon Trophy.

Joseph Kittinger had previously worked on Project Man High, and would go on to a third high altitude balloon project, Stargazer.

A recovery team assists Captain Kittinger after his 102,800-foot free fall, 16 August 1960. The helicopter in the background is a Piasecki H-21. (U.S. Air Force)

After returning to operations, Kittinger flew 483 combat missions in three tours during the Vietnam War. After two tours flying the Douglas B-26K Invader, he transitioned to the McDonnell F-4D Phantom II and returned to Southeast Asia for a voluntary third tour with the famed 555th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (“The Triple Nickel”). He is credited with shooting down a MiG 21 fighter.

Almost to the end of his third combat tour, Lieutenant Colonel Kittinger was himself shot down and and he and his Weapons System Officer were captured. They spent 11 months at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Captain Joseph W. Kitinger, United States Air Force. Captain Kittinger is wearing the wings of an Air Force Senior Pilot and an Air Force Basic Parachutist Badge. The red, white and blue striped ribbon represents the Distinguished Flying Cross. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force. Captain Kittinger is wearing the wings of an Air Force Senior Pilot and an Air Force Basic Parachutist Badge. The red, white and blue striped ribbon represents the Distinguished Flying Cross. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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