‘Discoverers On An Old Sphere’
Certainly one of the hardest parts of preparing an article, and I believe most writers will agree with me here, is getting the beginning excellent. What’s the fitting “point of entry” to the subject being discussed What aspect of it should you address first
A few weeks ago when I was writing what I meant to be my evaluate of the National Geographic documentary Space Dive, I went by that same process of mulling over the right place to begin. One natural place to begin a discussion of high-altitude ballooning and National Geographic seemed to be with an object I had seen at the Smithsonian a couple of months before — a high-altitude balloon gondola with the words “National Geographic Society” painted on its side. However, when i realized that the focus of my story was specifically the Excelsior and Stratos initiatives, Joseph Kittinger’s Excelsior III bounce appeared to be the only real place to begin.
But I knew I wanted to come back to that gondola in the Smithsonian, because it had a captivating story of its own. And because this month marked the 125th anniversary of the National Geographic Society, it seemed like the best time to share the story of another of the Society’s awesome-but-little-known 1930s explorers. Because decades before National Geographic coated Felix Baumgartner or even Joseph Kittinger, it had another star stratospheric balloonist in Captain Albert Stevens.
In response to his college yearbook (University of Maine, Class of 1907), Albert W. Stevens was not the sort of person who did things by halves: “He works nights, plugs days, and in the meantime turns out for track and trains as faithfully as the next man. His life is one strenuous strenuousity.” As an grownup, he routinely worked 48 hours straight, grew a reasonably candy mustache, and, after trying his hand at gold mining in Alaska, served in World War I as a photoreconnaissance specialist, which at that time meant leaning out of the back seat of a biplane with a very large and unwieldy camera whereas flying extremely low over the enemy lines as enemy soldiers were shooting at him.
After the warfare, Stevens continued to push the envelope with his flying and photographic skills, becoming a pioneer of aerial images. He celebrated President Hoover’s inauguration by using magnesium flares to take the first aerial night shots of the White Home and Capitol, and was the primary person to photograph the moon’s shadow on the Earth during a solar eclipse. In 1924, he joined an expedition to the Amazon organized by Dr. Hamilton Rice of Harvard’s Institute for Geographic Exploration.
The night after the expedition arrived in Manaus, Brazil, there was a revolt, and Stevens and the other explorers heard shooting outside of their hotel just as that they had settled all the way down to dinner. The lodge employees came over to shut the window by their table for protection, but Stevens waved them away — he wanted to watch what was happening outside. “For most of us this was our first revolution and we had no intention of missing any of it.” Stevens casually wrote in his National Geographic article concerning the expedition. A couple of hours later, after the capturing had died down, he went out with some friends to examine the extent of the damage to the city and talk to the soldiers on both sides.
That was just the form of guy Albert Stevens was.
A number of weeks after that eventful begin, the expedition began out along the Rio Negro — most of the explorers by steamer, and Stevens and his pilot Walter Hinton (who had made the first transatlantic flight a few years earlier) flying overhead in a floatplane. Early in the tropical morning, they may determine streams and tributaries from the air by watching mist rise off them, which proved very useful in making maps to help stone island 11804 the group touring by boat.
From above, the Amazon resembled an ocean to Stevens, who wrote:
“Below us, a sea of green billowed away over the low hills to a slender blue-black shore of mountains far to the west. From our elevation the palms scattered by means of the forest beneath appeared like a whole bunch of starfish at the underside of an ocean, their lighter green focusing in strong contrast against the dark tones of the jungle.”
While flying ahead to find a suitable location for a supply camp, Hinton and Stevens landed at a spot that seemed promising, only for the underside of the aircraft to hit a submerged rock that dug a deep gash into it. They were able to take off again, but because night was coming soon, they were forced to land once more, on a small, sandy island in the course of the river.
It took them eleven days to patch up the aircraft and await the river to rise high enough to take off. The biggest problem that the two faced on their “Robinson Crusoe Island” was the Amazonian ants that crawled all over all the pieces — one night Hinton hung his shirt up on a fishing line to let it dry, only to find the next morning that aunts had crawled up the line and eaten it! “… it nearly fell to pieces in his hands, being mostly holes.”
But on their third evening marooned on the island, Stevens and Hinton were awoken by loud noises in the middle of the evening — like a large animal was prowling around their camp, just on the other side of the campfire. Hinton thought it sounded like an elephant — of course, he knew elephants don’t live in South America, but midnight, stranded in the middle of the jungle is just not exactly a situation conducive to calm, logical thought — while Stevens was worried it might be a crocodile. He suggested that they raise their hammocks greater above the ground, just in case.
Once they had been out of bed, though, Stevens wanted to analyze — “Neither of us was inclined to wait passively to be devoured by some unknown beast, so we decided to meet the monster.” He grabbed up a flashlight and revolver (“too small to be of any use”), Hinton armed himself with a machete and an ax, and they headed towards the source of the noise. (Are you getting the sense that Captain Stevens wasn’t all that massive on the whole “regard-for-private-security” factor or is it just me )
The flashlight beam scared the animal, and they heard it crashing away via the jungle, before they may get a good look at it. In the morning, investigating the tracks it had made, they realized it had been a tapir, a large, but nonthreatening herbivorous mammal.
With their plane mounted, Stevens and Hinton rejoined the expedition and got back to mapping flights. From the air, they had a unique view of terrain no non-native had ever seen, scouting out rapids and waterfalls for the benefit of Dr. Rice’s social gathering on the boat. “Within the midst of the inexperienced, we would see a thread of silver water, spun from a source lost in the forest, falling over a sheer cliff into an inkwell of blackness hundreds of ft below…” As quick and useful as aerial photography was for mapmaking, Stevens noted that it produced a less-thrilling narrative than hardship-ridden exploration on foot: “…but obviously the story of De Soto, La Salle, or any of the early explorers would provide not almost such wealthy studying immediately if that they had used airplanes.”
A decade later, back in Cambridge, Captain Stevens would share his expertise in aerial photography — and his favorite Fairchild K-6 camera — with a young Harvard grad student who was planning an expedition of his own to Alaska to make survey flights over the area around Mount McKinley. That student, Bradford Washburn, whose story I advised back in July, would later grow to be a famous cartographer and wilderness photographer in his own right, as effectively as the founder of the Museum of Science… (Isn’t it wild how things are connected like that )
All good and effectively, you say, but I’ve promised the stratosphere and delivered the Amazon. What about that black-and-white gondola within the Smithsonian Nicely, as strange as it sounds in our present period of semi-regular human spaceflight, in the 1920s and 30s, the questions of how high up in the Earth’s atmosphere a person could safely go and what they might discover there represented nice unknowns. (Back in 1913, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had written a brief story known as “The Horror of the Heights” in which an unlucky pilot encountered terrible monsters lurking above thirty thousand feet [9,144 meters], the altitude of modern commercial airliners.) In 1927, Captain Hawthorne Gray of the Army Air Corps ascended to 42,740 feet (13,027.152 meters) in an open balloon basket, but returned dead, killed not by upper-atmospheric monsters but by the thin air and the failure of his oxygen equipment.
It was Swiss inventor Auguste Piccard who overcame those limitations by creating a pressurized, airtight gondola, within which pilots may breathe and conduct scientific observations in relative comfort. In 1931, Piccard and his assistant Paul Kipfer rose to 51,762 ft (15,777 meters), changing into the first humans to pass into our atmosphere’s second layer, the stratosphere. Piccard and Kipfer didn’t see any monsters, either, (sorry, Sir Arthur) but they gathered helpful information about incoming cosmic rays. In a proto-Space-Race, teams from other nations eagerly attempted similar missions to greater and greater altitudes.
In 1934, Albert Stevens convinced the Army Air Corps and the National Geographic Society to sponsor their own high-altitude balloon mission, to assemble scientific information and recapture the flight altitude document for the United States. Their first balloon, Explorer, was launched on July 28, 1934 from a canyon in South Dakota that newspapers called the “Stratobowl”. (Which sounds like some kind of strange sporting event…) Inside the gondola had been Stevens and two other Air Corps officers, Major William Kepner and Captain Orvil Anderson, who wore leather football helmets borrowed from an area Highschool for added safety. Like their extra-well-known successors, Kepner, Stevens, and Anderson would find yourself jumping out of their gondola — but not intentionally…
The launch of the balloon itself went very well, with the crew protected and blissful inside their capsule, the scientific tools working as deliberate, and the radio hook-up allowing them to communicate simply with their ground crew and the spectators. However at 60,613 ft (18,474.8 meters), just a thousand feet short of the altitude document, the balloon ripped, sending the gondola falling back to Earth.
“At 10,000 ft, we really ought to have left the balloon, however we didn’t want to abandon the scientific apparatus. So we stayed on.” Stevens wrote, “At 6,000 toes, we once more talked the matter over and decided we had better depart. The last altimeter reading I gave was 5,000 feet above sea degree. Since this part of Nebraska was 2,000 feet above sea level, we have been in actuality only somewhat more than a half mile from the bottom.”
Kepner and Anderson parachuted out, and Captain Stevens was getting ready to observe them when the balloon exploded. (Not like later stratospheric balloons, this was a HYDROGEN balloon, not a helium one, and as can be demonstrated four years later with the Hindenburg, hydrogen fuel may be very dangerous like that…) The gondola fell even faster, “dropping like a stone” in Stevens’ phrases. He tried to push himself by way of the hatch twice, however the wind stress pushed him again in. Attempting yet another time, he made it out, and opened his parachute, only to have a few of the balloon’s fabric fall on high of it. For a second, it appeared dangerous, however then the parachute slid freed from the balloon fabric, protecting Stevens safely afloat because the gondola crashed to the bottom.
However, Stevens’ landing, as he described it, was far less-dignified than what the NGS’ future space-divers would experience — his parachute dragged him face-first by means of the mud of a cornfield earlier than he stopped. Stevens and Kepner went to the home of the farmer who owned the sector to make some phone calls informing people who they had survived. The crew had worn long underwear below their flying suits to protect against upper-atmospheric cold, but on the ground in July, this attire was stifling. So Stevens modified within the farmer’s bathroom and hung his long underwear on a fence before going off to make his phone calls. When he came out, well, I’ll quote verbatim from his National Geographic article again…
“After i came out, I found that souvenir hunters had taken my underwear! I haven’t seen it since. Perhaps by this time it has been minimize into small squares. Possibly, like items of balloon cloth which have been received by mail, some of it may be sent in with the request that it be autographed!”
(A minimum of now we know that fans in the nineteen thirties may very well be crazy, too…)
Now, most people who had fallen from 11 miles up, almost died, had all of their scientific gear destroyed, been dragged by means of the mud, and had their underwear stolen would not be prepared to repeat the experience that had induced that string of occasions any time quickly. However as we have established, Albert Stevens was not like most people. So, in 1935, he and Orvil Anderson launched aboard Explorer II on another stratospheric flight…
After some quick dumping of the lead shot they carried as ballast, the gondola lifted off the ground and saved ascending. All of their gear worked high quality, including the microphone that allowed folks at home to hear in dwell on their radio sets as the mission progressed. Anderson talked to his spouse by way of the radio hookup.
“The place are you ” She requested, jokingly.
“I am up within the air.” He joked back, adding that they had been at 54,000 ft (16,459 meters) and still climbing.
The radio equipment also allowed the balloonists to be interviewed dwell by an announcer in London and to overhear the chatter between reporters overlaying their flight.
“Don’t play up this document business, boys, till we’re certain that they have gotten down safely. There is still plenty of chance for them to crash and they have to come back down alive to make it a record.” One announcer advised his colleagues. Regardless of that reporter’s doubts, Explorer II did certainly attain a file peak — seventy two,395 ft, or 22,066 meters.
Stevens described the view from that altitude thusly:
“The earth could be seen plainly underneath… and hundreds of miles in every course by the aspect portholes. It was an enormous expanse of brown, apparently flat, stretching on and on. Wagon roads and car highways were invisible, houses were invisible, and railroads could be recognized only by an occasional cut or fill. The bigger farms had been discernable as tiny rectangular areas. Occasional streaks of inexperienced vegetation confirmed the presence of streams.”
Whereas they may see the sky above them becoming very dark, the balloon blocked their view immediately upwards, although Stevens wrote that he was positive it might have been dark enough to see stars if the balloon hadn’t been in the way. At the best angle visible, the sky appeared “[not] utterly black; it was reasonably a black with the merest suspicion of very darkish blue.”
There have been no accidents this time, and Anderson and Stevens landed safely. Their intact instruments delivered a wealth of knowledge about near-area conditions, and their altitude document would stand for 15 years, till the lead-in to the Area Age introduced a brand new period of stratospheric analysis with the Stratolab and Manhigh applications. And simply seven years after that, Yuri Gagarin would orbit the Earth, setting horizons greater still.
But Albert Stevens wasn’t around to see any of that. He died in 1949, with the Explorer II flight still, as he had titled his article on it, “Man’s Farthest Aloft”. But in the conclusion of that article, we see some suggestion of the longer term:
“To get still more altitude, the balloon may be flown to a maximum ceiling by dropping all ballast, and saving none for descent; the gondola may be lower away at the top of the flight on a large parachute … The fall of such a gondola on a parachute within the extremely skinny higher air of the stratosphere can be for tens of hundreds of toes earlier than the parachute would really retard it. That would be a ride!”
That, twenty years after his death, a man may take a fair better journey, dispensing with the gondola and purposefully leaping out to parachute to Earth from near-area, may need appeared loopy even to Albert Stevens.
Or would it have In the 1920s, Stevens had tested a parachute and oxygen equipment in a bounce from the then-dizzying altitude of 26,500 ft (8,077.2 meters), in a precursor to Joseph Kittinger’s Excelsior leaps. In truth, in his 1961 ebook, The Long, Lonely Leap, Kittinger expressed admiration for the way fastidiously Stevens had prepared for that check, with a degree of thoroughness comparable to his own mission checklists three a long time later.
Perhaps, then, the fiction author in me imagines, if the magic of the Society’s anniversary (with maybe a little bit of help from the Pill of Ahkmenrah) brought on Captain Stevens’ spirit to return to the National Geographic headquarters and evaluate notes with the society’s later balloonists, he would rapidly recognize their adventures as a natural outgrowth of his own. A mix of high-altitude balloon ascension and testing of escape gear, together in a single mission, with just a progression of scale and some technological advances — from leather football helmets to supersonic pressure suits and radio hookups to Internet livestreams.
Stevens had written that his Amazon flights had given Hinton and himself the prospect to be “discoverers on an previous sphere that has been fairly nicely discovered, charted, and nailed down”, but I believe he’d be pleased to know that others had built on his work to help move exploration beyond “this outdated sphere” and out into the bigger Universe. After which, within the basic explorers’ membership scene, I suppose he would settle into a straightforward chair and ask Messrs. Kittinger and Baumgartner for the blow-by-blow of their great adventures…
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