‘Discoverers On An Previous Sphere’
One in every of the toughest elements of preparing an article, and I think most writers will agree with me here, is getting the beginning just right. What’s the best “point of entry” to the subject being discussed What side of it should you tackle first
A couple of weeks in the past when I was writing what I supposed to be my overview of the National Geographic documentary Space Dive, I went through that same means of mulling over the best place to begin. One natural place to begin a dialogue of high-altitude ballooning and Nationwide Geographic gave the impression to be with an object I had seen on the Smithsonian just a few months before — a high-altitude balloon gondola with the words “National Geographic Society” painted on its aspect. However, when i realized that the focus of my story was particularly the Excelsior and Stratos projects, Joseph Kittinger’s Excelsior III jump gave the impression 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 an enchanting story of its own. And because this month marked the 125th anniversary of the Nationwide Geographic Society, it seemed like the fitting time to share the story of another of the Society’s awesome-however-little-recognized thirties explorers. Because decades before National Geographic covered Felix Baumgartner or even Joseph Kittinger, it had another star stratospheric balloonist in Captain Albert Stevens.
In response to his school yearbook (College of Maine, Class of 1907), Albert W. Stevens was not the type 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 labored forty eight hours straight, grew a pretty sweet mustache, and, after trying his hand at gold mining in Alaska, served in World Battle 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 while flying extraordinarily low over the enemy traces as enemy troopers have been shooting at him.
After the war, Stevens continued to push the envelope with his flying and photographic skills, becoming a pioneer of aerial photography. He celebrated President Hoover’s inauguration through the use of magnesium flares to take the primary aerial night time shots of the White House and Capitol, and was the first 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 time after the expedition arrived in Manaus, Brazil, there was a revolt, and Stevens and the opposite explorers heard shooting outdoors of their resort just as that they had settled down to dinner. The lodge staff came over to close 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 about the expedition. A couple of hours later, after the capturing had died down, he went out with some pals to study the extent of the damage to town and speak to the soldiers on each sides.
That was just the form of guy Albert Stevens was.
A couple of weeks after that eventful start, the expedition started 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 could identify streams and tributaries from the air by watching mist rise off them, which proved very useful in making maps to help the group touring by boat.
From above, the Amazon resembled an ocean to Stevens, who wrote:
“Under us, a sea of inexperienced 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 below appeared like a whole lot of starfish at the bottom of an ocean, their lighter inexperienced focusing in strong distinction towards the dark tones of the jungle.”
Whereas 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 plane to hit a submerged rock that dug a deep gash into it. They have been able to take off again, however because night was coming soon, they have been forced to land again, on a small, sandy island in the course of the river.
It took them eleven days to patch up the aircraft and anticipate 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 every little thing — one night Hinton hung his shirt up on a fishing line to let it dry, solely to search out 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 night marooned on the island, Stevens and Hinton had been awoken by loud noises in the course of the night — 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, however midnight, stranded in the course of the jungle just isn’t precisely a situation conducive to calm, logical thought — while Stevens was worried it might be a crocodile. He advised that they raise their hammocks increased above the ground, simply in case.
Once they had been out of mattress, although, Stevens needed to research — “Neither of us was inclined to wait passively to be devoured by some unknown beast, so we determined to satisfy 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 entire “regard-for-private-safety” thing or is it simply me )
The flashlight beam scared the animal, they usually heard it crashing away by the jungle, before they could get a great look at it. In the morning, investigating the tracks it had made, they realized it had been a tapir, a large, however nonthreatening herbivorous mammal.
With their plane fixed, Stevens and Hinton rejoined the expedition and received 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 party on the boat. “Within the midst of the inexperienced, we would see a thread of silver water, spun from a supply misplaced within the forest, falling over a sheer cliff into an inkwell of blackness hundreds of feet below…” As quick and useful as aerial photography was for mapmaking, Stevens noted that it produced a much less-thrilling narrative than hardship-ridden exploration on foot: “…however clearly the story of De Soto, La Salle, or any of the early explorers would supply not nearly such rich reading as we speak if that they had used airplanes.”
A decade later, again in Cambridge, Captain Stevens would share his expertise in aerial photography — and his favourite Fairchild Okay-6 digital camera — with a young Harvard grad pupil who was planning an expedition of his own to Alaska to make survey flights over the realm around Mount McKinley. That pupil, Bradford Washburn, whose story I told back in July, would later become a well-known cartographer and wilderness photographer in his own right, as well as the founder of the Museum of Science… (Isn’t it wild how things are linked like that )
All good and well, you say, but I’ve promised the stratosphere and delivered the Amazon. What about that black-and-white gondola within the Smithsonian Properly, as strange as it sounds in our present era of semi-regular human spaceflight, in the 1920s and 30s, the questions of how high up in the Earth’s ambiance a person may safely go and what they could find there represented great unknowns. (Back in 1913, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had written a short story called “The Horror of the Heights” in which an unlucky pilot encountered terrible monsters lurking above thirty thousand feet [9,144 meters], the altitude of trendy industrial 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 however by the skinny air and the failure of his oxygen tools.
It was Swiss inventor Auguste Piccard who overcame these limitations by making a pressurized, airtight gondola, within which pilots could 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 primary humans to move into our atmosphere’s second layer, the stratosphere. Piccard and Kipfer did not see any monsters, either, (sorry, Sir Arthur) but they gathered beneficial information about incoming cosmic rays. In a proto-Area-Race, teams from other nations eagerly attempted similar missions to larger and larger altitudes.
In 1934, Albert Stevens convinced the Military Air Corps and the Nationwide Geographic Society to sponsor their own high-altitude balloon mission, to gather 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 referred to as the “Stratobowl”. (Which feels like some type of unusual sporting event…) Inside the gondola have been Stevens and two other Air Corps officers, Main William Kepner and Captain Orvil Anderson, who wore leather-based football helmets borrowed from an area Highschool for added safety. Like their extra-well-known successors, Kepner, Stevens, and Anderson would find yourself leaping out of their gondola — but not intentionally…
The launch of the balloon itself went very well, with the crew safe and happy inside their capsule, the scientific tools working as deliberate, and the radio hook-up permitting them to speak simply with their floor crew and the spectators. But at 60,613 toes (18,474.8 meters), just a thousand toes wanting the altitude report, the balloon ripped, sending the gondola falling again to Earth.
“At 10,000 toes, we actually 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 determined we had higher go away. The last altimeter studying I gave was 5,000 feet above sea stage. Since this a part of Nebraska was 2,000 toes above sea stage, we have been in actuality solely somewhat greater than a half mile from the bottom.”
Kepner and Anderson parachuted out, and Captain Stevens was preparing to follow them when the balloon exploded. (Unlike later stratospheric balloons, this was a HYDROGEN balloon, not a helium one, and as could be demonstrated 4 years later with the Hindenburg, hydrogen gasoline might be very harmful like that…) The gondola fell even sooner, “dropping like a stone” in Stevens’ words. He tried to push himself through the hatch twice, but the wind pressure pushed him back in. Trying yet one more time, he made it out, and opened his parachute, solely to have among the balloon’s fabric fall on prime of it. For a second, it seemed bad, but then the parachute slid free of the balloon fabric, keeping Stevens safely afloat as the gondola crashed to the bottom.
Nonetheless, Stevens’ touchdown, as he described it, was far much less-dignified than what the NGS’ future house-divers would expertise — his parachute dragged him face-first through the mud of a cornfield before he stopped. Stevens and Kepner went to the house of the farmer who owned the field to make some telephone calls informing people that they’d survived. The crew had worn lengthy underwear under their flying suits to guard 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 lengthy underwear on a fence before going off to make his phone calls. When he came out, well, I am going to quote verbatim from his National Geographic article again…
“Once i came out, I found that souvenir hunters had taken my underwear! I haven’t seen it since. Maybe by this time it has been cut into small squares. Maybe, like pieces of balloon cloth which have been acquired by mail, some of it may be sent in with the request that it’s autographed!”
(Not less than now we know that fans in the 1930s might be loopy, too…)
Now, most people who had fallen from 11 miles up, nearly died, had all of their scientific gear destroyed, been dragged by the mud, and had their underwear stolen would not be prepared to repeat the experience that had caused that string of occasions any time quickly. But as we’ve 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 bottom and stored ascending. All of their tools labored tremendous, including the microphone that allowed people at home to pay attention in live on their radio units because the mission progressed. Anderson talked to his spouse by way of the radio hookup.
“The place are you ” She requested, jokingly.
“I’m up within the air.” He joked again, including that they have been at fifty four,000 toes (sixteen,459 meters) and nonetheless climbing.
The radio equipment additionally allowed the balloonists to be interviewed stay by an announcer in London and to overhear the chatter between reporters overlaying their flight.
“Do not play up this report enterprise, boys, till we’re positive that they have gotten down safely. There is still loads of chance for them to crash and they have to return down alive to make it a report.” One announcer suggested his colleagues. Regardless of that reporter’s doubts, Explorer II did certainly attain a file top — seventy two,395 feet, or 22,066 meters.
Stevens described the view from that altitude thusly:
“The earth could be seen plainly underneath… and hundreds of miles in each route by way of the 91670 facet portholes. It was a vast expanse of brown, apparently flat, stretching on and on. Wagon roads and automobile highways were invisible, houses were invisible, and railroads might be acknowledged solely by an occasional reduce or fill. The bigger farms have been discernable as tiny rectangular areas. Occasional streaks of green vegetation showed the presence of streams.”
While they could see the sky above them becoming very dark, the balloon blocked their view straight upwards, though Stevens wrote that he was positive it will have been darkish sufficient to see stars if the balloon hadn’t been in the way in which. At the highest angle visible, the sky looked “[not] completely black; it was rather 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 devices delivered a wealth of information about near-space conditions, and their altitude record would stand for 15 years, until the lead-in to the Space Age brought a new era of stratospheric analysis with the Stratolab and Manhigh packages. And just seven years after that, Yuri Gagarin would orbit the Earth, setting horizons higher 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 future:
“To get nonetheless 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 Stone Island Clothes … The fall of such a gondola on a parachute in the extremely thin higher air of the stratosphere would be for tens of hundreds of toes earlier than the parachute would really retard it. That would be a experience!”
That, twenty years after his demise, a man might take an even better experience, dispensing with the gondola and purposefully leaping out to parachute to Earth from near-space, might need appeared loopy even to Albert Stevens.
Or wouldn’t it have In the 1920s, Stevens had tested a parachute and oxygen equipment in a jump from the then-dizzying altitude of 26,500 feet (8,077.2 meters), in a precursor to Joseph Kittinger’s Excelsior leaps. The truth is, in his 1961 guide, The Long, Lonely Leap, Kittinger expressed admiration for how carefully Stevens had prepared for that test, with a level of thoroughness comparable to his own mission checklists three decades 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) triggered Captain Stevens’ spirit to return to the National Geographic headquarters and compare notes with the society’s later balloonists, he would quickly recognize their adventures as a natural outgrowth of his own. A combination of excessive-altitude balloon ascension and testing of escape tools, together in a single mission, with only a development of scale and some technological advances — from leather football helmets to supersonic strain suits and radio hookups to Internet livestreams.
Stevens had written that his Amazon flights had given Hinton and himself the chance to be “discoverers on an previous sphere that has been pretty well found, charted, and nailed down”, however I believe he’d be pleased stone island garment dyed down black jacket to know that others had built on his work to help move exploration beyond “this outdated sphere” and out into the larger Universe. And then, within the traditional explorers’ club scene, I suppose he would settle into a straightforward chair and ask Messrs. Kittinger and Baumgartner for the blow-by-blow of their nice adventures…