Higher Horizons

It was a cold and clear December day, fourteen miles above South Dakota. A Lieutenant Colonel from the Army Air Corps was suspended in a pressurized basket underneath a massive helium balloon. His name was Albert William Stevens, and while floating 14 miles above the surface of the earth, he took the first photograph that would show us something spectacular, something math had proved to us thousands of years ago, but that we’d never seen in person. A horizon that to the naked eye looked almost straight, but held up against a ruler showed the truth: The earth was round and we had proof.

That photograph may not look like much to us now. We’ve seen pictures of the earth from the moon, and from the far edge of our solar system, but to Lt. Col. Stevens it was the culmination of 30 years of exploration, the literal height of his achievements. He was born 10 years after the civil war had ended, and was only 27 when the Wright Brothers lifted off from the North Carolina dunes, reaching an at the time unbelievable 10 feet of unsupported altitude.

Lt. Col. Stevens had joined the Army Air Corps during World War 1, and after the end of the war he convinced the Air Corps to explore high-altitude balloon flights in what was quickly becoming a race to the stratosphere.

Balloon exploration came with its own risks. The further they traveled into the sky, the thinner the air became. The pressure differential in the upper atmosphere could pop their balloons, sending the crew plummeting back to earth. After 14,000 feet it would become harder and harder to breath without oxygen tanks. In 1927 Captain Hawthorn Gray, also of the Army Air Corp, set an altitude record of 43,380, but he did not make it back to the surface alive. His oxygen ran out halfway through his descent, and he was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Four record-breaking balloon flights after the death of Captain Gray, Lt. Col. Stevens helped to set a new record in South Dakota, 1935. The Lt. Col. and his crew took the Explorer II 72,400 feet into the sky, beating the previous record by only 400ft. That record that was set by the USSR just one year earlier, but structural failures on the craft caused an uncontrolled descent and the crew was killed on impact. Lt. Col. Stevens’ altitude record would not be beat until 1956, but by then we had an entirely new way of reaching the upper atmosphere. The age of Rocketry was about to begin.

By Bundesarchiv, RH8II Bild-B0788–42 BSM / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61306285

It is impossible to talk about the rocket without mentioning Wernher Von Braun, who’s first glimpse of the upper atmosphere may well have been in 1932 during a lecture at his university. The speaker was a man by the name of Auguste Piccard, who, at the time, held his own balloon altitude record at 52,000 feet. It is said that Von Braun told Piccard he was going to land on the Moon one day, and that Piccard did not doubt the eventual rocketeer.

The brief period between World Wars saw an unprecedented advancement in high-altitude flights and upper atmosphere research. But in 1939 the race to the stratosphere was put on hold as the Nazis invaded Poland, and Europe began to burn. Lt. Col. Stevens continued to serve the Army Air Corps, Auguste Piccard retreated to Switzerland, and Wernher Von Braun joined the Nazi party and put his degree in mechanics and his passion for rocketry to use at the V2 Rocket Program in Nordhausen Germany.

14 years, 3 nuclear detonations, and 75 million casualties later, Wernher Von Braun was in White Sands New Mexico. He had been freshly paper-clipped by the US State Department, his “alleged” crimes forgotten in exchange for his knowledge and his expertise. The very V2 rockets that had been built with slave labor and had killed more people in their manufacture than their use in war, were now being quietly shipped part-in-parcel by rail, truck, and boat to the White Sands Proving Ground, a deserted stretch of desert in New Mexico a hundred miles from anything, the perfect place to test planes, bombs, and rockets. The V2 Rockets were now the property of the US Military and were turned over to the Upper Atmosphere Research Panel, a group of scientists, military engineers, and defense contractors. Their goal was to gather data on the upper atmosphere and to provide a better picture of this new frontier for science and warfare.

The V2s Rockets were carefully categorized, examined, and assembled under the supervision of Von Braun. And while the members of the Upper Atmosphere Research Panel weren’t working they shared cafeterias and common areas with the remaining employees of the Manhattan Project, who would soon, after 7 long years, be going home.

The Upper Atmosphere Research Panel launched twelve V2 rockets into the sky above the White Sands proving ground, with the last one reaching an altitude of 100 miles above the surface of the earth, more than 7 times the height that Lt. Col. Stevens had managed in a balloon just a decade earlier. It was the furthest that any manmade object had made it into space, and they were just getting started.

On the 13th launch, a photographic engineer by the name of Clyde T. Holliday put a camera in the nose-cone of the V2. This camera was specially designed to take a picture 60 miles up, and then survive the fall back to earth. Clyde T. Holliday took the first photograph from space. That photo, to us, would look unremarkable. It’s grainy, and impossible to make out the New Mexican desert beyond the clouds. But the horizon is curved, and set against the black of space.

Clyde T. Holliday had worked as a military engineer before he found himself in White Sands, New Mexico. He was employed by the Naval Research Laboratory, and helped to develop the radio proximity fuse used in Artillery Shells. He had used the same technology to take a picture with a rocket 60 miles away. While he went on to take more photographs, the Upper Atmosphere Research Panel continued breaking barriers, one decade before Sputnik, and more than 20 years before we landed on the moon. This was long before anyone even thought there would be a race to space. They recorded the gradual thinning of the atmosphere, they measured solar radiation and witnessed cosmic rays. They even sent corn seeds and fruit flies just past the edge of the atmosphere, the first life to ever leave and then return back to earth.

It is worth noting, at this point, that there are countless people whose contributions to early spaceflight will go unnoticed because they did not or were not allowed to be formally recognized. Most of these will be the women and people of color who staffed the labs and offices, and whose calculations and craft made this research possible. Due to the classification of records we may never know their full contribution.

In the shadow of war and death these engineers, mechanics, and skilled workers took our first small steps to space. But, after 2 years of research and test launches the Army took over the development of American rocketry, and the program was repurposed. The V2 would be used to develop the US Army’s next weapon platform. They launched the last rocket on the 19th of September, 1952. With that, the Upper Atmosphere Research Panel’s stay at White Sands Proving Ground had ended.

Clyde T. Holliday’s work as an engineer would one day travel as far as the moon, but it was 1967 when he developed the first full color picture of the planet earth, taken 20,000 miles above its surface. Finally a full circle of swirling clouds and ocean, the first of its kind and far from the last.

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K.W. Burnette

K.W. Burnette

Welcome to my page! I do Community analysis and post-platform content development, if you have any questions I am available to answer them!