On November 20th 1933, LCDR Thomas G.W. Settle, USN and MAJ Chester I. Fordney, USMC set a world record balloon flight into the stratosphere at 62,237 ft.
The Soviet Union had captured the imagination of the world by sending men higher than anyone had ever gone before. America’s response was made shortly afterward by a naval officer and a Marine officer. Their names were not Shepard and Glenn, and the time was not the Sixties, but the Thirties. In an all-but-forgotten flight, two American military men carried their country’s colors to a world altitude record and began the race for space …
From the article; “When the Race for Space Began” by J. Gordan Vaeth printed in Proceedings August, 1963
When the Race for Space Began
J. Gordon Vaeth
On 20 November 1933~while a great, pear-shaped, white-colored envelope drifted silently above the Ohio countryside a message was received by Naval Communications in Washington: STRATOSPHERE BALLOON LT COMDR SETTLE MAJOR FORDNEY TOOK OFF AKRON NAUGHT NINE THREE NAUGHT X PLEASE INFORM OPNAV, BUAER, MAJOR GENERAL COMMANDANT.
Those who originated and received this dispatch could have hardly foreseen its implications. The take-off which it reported would result in the achievement of a world’s altitude record. The Foreign Commissar of the Soviet Union, commenting on the flight, would use it as a basis for challenging the United States to compete with his country for the conquest of the heights. Josef Stalin, apparently irked by the Settle-Fordney achievement, allegedly would order three Soviet balloonists into the air and to their deaths in an attempt to break the American held record. And from this there would emerge the Race for Space, a race that began with piloted balloons before graduating to satellites and manned spacecraft.
The balloon which rose from the Akron Municipal Airport that morning 30 years ago had emblazoned on its gondola the crossed anchors, shield, and eagle of the Navy, and the globe, eagle, and anchor of the Marine Corps. The pilot was Lieutenant Commander Thomas (“Tex”) Greenhow Williams Settle, U. S. Navy, known at that time for his interest in rocket experiments and his predictions of the coming era of manned rocket flight. Lieutenant Commander Settle’s scientific observer was a ground-based Marine reservist, Major Chester L. Fordney.
Their ascent did much more than begin the Race for Space. It pioneered the sealed cabins and life support systems used in manned spacecraft today. As far as is known, it was the first flight to expose living organisms, spores, directly to conditions at the top of the atmosphere. It is believed to have been the first flight in which the biological effects of very high altitude radiation upon human beings was the subject of serious concern and study.
Settle and Fordney rode no rocket. They could hardly be called astronauts in today’s sense of the word. They were, however, the first Americans to reach, enter, and remain for any period of time (two hours) in a space equivalent environment. In this sense, they were America’s first men-in-space-and the press and public of the times considered them such.
The story of their flight had its beginnings half a decade before in the mid-1920s. Settle, an airship officer based at Lakehurst, New Jersey, had become interested in taking a free balloon as high as possible into the atmosphere. He watched, therefore, the altitude attempts being made at the time in an open balloon basket by the Army’s Captain Hawthorne Gray. When, in 1927, Gray reached 42,470 feet, but lost his life through oxygen supply failure, Settle quickly concluded that flight to this and greater heights would demand sealed and pressurized cabins.
With C. P. Burgess of the Bureau of Aeronautics, he worked out a design for such a cabin. It was among the first in aviation history. Dubbed “The Flying Coffin” because of its shape, it consisted of a cylinder about seven feet long, with rounded ends and a diameter of approximately three feet. Inside was room for one man, his life support system, instruments, and flight controls. Sitting on a shelf, Settle had hoped to ride this tube shaped gondola far into the stratosphere.
Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, the Bureau’s research-minded Chief, took a personal interest in the “Coffin” and authorized its fabrication by the Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia. It was never built, however. About this time, Navy efforts to develop a seaplane to win the Schneider Racing Trophy had begun to attract Congressional and public attention. There was an outcry against so-called “unconventional projects.” The Bureau of Aeronautics yielded to pressure, and among the projects canceled was “The Flying Coffin.”
Others, however, had been quick to adopt the idea. Auguste Piccard, the Swiss-born physicist, was one. Independently, he had hit upon the same solution to protect himself against the low pressure, extreme cold, and lack of oxygen found at the heights he wanted to reach for cosmic ray studies. Instead of a cylinder, however, his cabin was a sphere. In it, he and an assistant twice reached record altitudes over Europe: 51,000 feet in 1931 and 53,000 feet a year later.
Early in 1933, Auguste Piccard came to the United States for a lecture tour which he hoped would help raise funds for still another ascent. This was the year that Chicago was playing host to the world’s fair-“A Century of Progress” Exposition. Piccard suggested that he make his new scientific flight as one of the attractions of the fair. Its managers were enthusiastic; the National Broadcasting Company and the Chicago Daily News quickly volunteered to help as sponsors. Two Nobel prize-winning American scientists, Arthur H. Compton and Robert A. Millikan, would provide cosmic ray equipment. The Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation agreed to donate the hydrogen and the Dow Chemical Company, a gondola. The balloon would be designed and built at cost by the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation. The pilot would be Auguste Piccard. His twin brother Jean, a chemist living in Wilmington, Delaware, would accompany him aloft as observer.
An unforeseen circumstance in Europe, however, necessitated Auguste Piccard’s return. Settle, the only man in the world then known to be licensed to fly all types of aircraft, record distance-holder for balloon flying and winner of the 16-entry Gordon Bennett International Balloon Race of 1932, was loaned by the Navy to serve as pilot. When uncertainty arose about the balloon’s ability to reach a record height, Jean Piccard graciously withdrew from the flight to reduce the weight not disposable for ballast.
Settle would go it alone-and, to see his take-off, tens of thousands arrived at Chicago’s Soldier Field on the summer night of 4 August 1933. They looked out upon a sight never before seen in that great stadium. White ground cloths had been spread across the grass. On them lay a pile of wrinkled fabric, the envelope of the largest balloon yet built. Nearby was a stack of 700 steel cylinders filled with hydrogen gas. From these cylinders a long inflation tube stretched over to the giant bag.
Inflating the 600,000-cubic-foot, single ply, rubberized-cotton envelope was slow and tedious. Gradually, however, ‘the 105-foot diameter balloon began mushrooming into shape. It was kept earthbound by ropes which passed through eyelets in a catenary band circling the envelope near its top.
Towards 2: 00 a.m., the gondola was wheeled beneath the towering bag to be connected by shroud lines with another catenary band girding the lower part of the balloon. Seven feet in diameter, the sphere had a shell only three-sixteenths of an inch thick.
At 2: 15 am it was announced over the public address system that Settle wanted to test the balloon valve. Complete silence was requested. The crowd fell quiet. He gave the valve cord a hard pull, let go, and listened. Many could hear it-a prolonged hissing and whistling that gradually lessened and then stopped, which meant that, instead of slamming shut as they should have done, the valve doors had only slowly, very slowly, moved back into the closed position.
The envelope was only partially inflated to leave room for the hydrogen to expand as greater heights and lower pressures were reached. The 125,000 cubic feet which had been fed into the bag had concentrated as a ball of gas in the upper portion of the balloon; the lower part was empty and hung as loose folds of fabric. Passing through these folds, the valve cord had been restrained. The balloon’s designers had foreseen this possibility, had heavily coated the cord with graphite, and had brought it down through the interior of the bag and out through the fabric at a point where they thought the valve cord would be relatively free from the sucked-in folds and curtains. Still, the cord continued to be restrained.
Settle stood on the field, looking alternately at the balloon and at the crowd. Unable to valve properly, he knew that the flight would probably fail. He also knew that to abort the launch attempt by ripping the balloon and releasing its hydrogen in the middle of the stadium would endanger the people in the stands.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Bathed in the light of powerful searchlights, the A Century of Progress, as the balloon had been christened on the field, began a slow majestic climb. It was 3:00 a.m. At 5,000 feet, seeing himself over deserted railroad yards, Settle tried the valve again. This time it stayed open, showing no sign of closing whatsoever.
Three thousand feet…and falling. Settle began dumping sand and lead pellet ballast upon the tracks beneath.
Still illuminated by the lights at Soldier Field, the sinking balloon was clearly visible to the spectators. Marine Major Fordney, whose men had been helping with the launch operation, took four Marines with him, jumped into a car and headed for the balloon, keeping it barely in sight as it dropped ever lower in the sky. When he reached it, he found it lying deflated on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy right-of-way at 14th and Canal Streets. A cigarette-smoking crowd had begun to gather and was tramping over the envelope. Settle, uninjured, was doing his best to keep them away. Few paid any attention to his warning shouts that the big bag still had pockets of explosive hydrogen in it. Some had begun cutting the fabric up for souvenirs. One or two were even eying the equipment and instruments inside the gondola.
Fordney and his men made their entry. According to the Chicago Daily News, “in the ensuing three minutes, the mob was treated to a gala performance of language and action that have won reputations for potency from the halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli. Neither lost any of its traditional effectiveness under the circumstances.” With the help of other military personnel arriving on the scene, the balloon was rolled up, placed on a railroad freight car, and, with the gondola, taken to a nearby warehouse where it was secured for the night and guarded by Fordney’s Marines.
The flight had reached 5,000 feet. It had lasted about 15 minutes. The great spectacle at Soldier Field had ended in a tremendous flop. Yet the press treated the episode good-naturedly. One paper headlined the story, SETTLE UP! SETTLE DOWN! Almost every editorial expressed the hope that the flight would be attempted again.
And it was. The hydrogen was re-ordered; two thousand holes and bruise marks were patched in the envelope; the gondola was refitted and its dents removed.
Settle, whose duty assignment was Inspector of Naval Aircraft in Akron, remained on loan by the Navy for this second attempt. His experience on the first flight had convinced him that, regardless of weight considerations, he needed another man on board. He chose “Mike” Fordney, who had saved the balloon from the mob and whom he had known for some months in connection with the Exposition and with the preparations for take-off at Soldier Field. Fordney, a student of science, and in charge of the mathematics exhibit at the fair, was detailed as flight observer.
On 24 September’ 1933 came news from overseas that the Soviets had that date tried unsuccessfully to launch a record-seeking, high-altitude, sealed-cabin balloon. Its name: the USSR. Six days later, they succeeded. In a flight lasting eight hours and 19 minutes, three Russian aeronauts, Georgi Prokofiev, Konstantin Gudenoff, and Ernest Birnbaum reached a height of 62,230 feet. In their ascent from Moscow to a point 11.8 miles above the earth, they had surpassed Auguste Piccard’s “highest aloft” record by almost 10,000 feet. In replying to the Soviet achievement, Settle and Fordney decided not to try another ascent from the Exposition grounds in Chicago. They would transfer operations to, the Goodyear Zeppelin dock at Akron: Inside this mammoth hangar, the balloon could be inflated and rigged regardless of the weather and in privacy, without fanfare and public relations pressures.
On 17 November, the A Century of Progress, was erected and pronounced ready for flight again. The troublesome valve cord, now encased in a flexible tube and led out of the bag at the equator, worked perfectly. Only the wait for favorable weather remained.
Early the morning of the 20th, the already inflated balloon was walked through the northeast hangar doors and out onto the field. Fordney, dressed in leather flying jacket, took his place inside the gondola for what would be the first and only balloon flight he ever made. His was the responsibility for the scientific equipment.
Settle, hat-less and wearing white tennis shoes, blue trousers, and a light leather jacket, was atop the gondola checking shroud lines and attachments.
Because a “high sun” was desired for some of the scientific experiments aboard, the plan was to reach peak altitude about midday. High velocity winds waited in the stratosphere. Drift-wise, Settle and Fordney could not afford to spend any more time than absolutely necessary in their eastward flow. The coastline was too close. Accordingly, it was hoped to delay the launch as late into the morning as possible.
The balloon had been undocked at daybreak to take advantage of the early-morning wind lull. As the sun rose, so did the wind. By nine o’clock it was blowing out of the northwest at almost eight m.p.h. The craft could not be held on the ground much longer. Minutes later the A Century of Progress began its ascent with Settle riding atop the gondola roof jettisoning bags of lead and sand ballast.
For the second time it was headed up, its destination the upper atmosphere. Gross weight as it left the ground was 7,700 pounds, of which 4,100 was ballast.
Inexorably the aerostat began its drift towards the coast where the Atlantic lapped at the shoreline only 400 miles away. Altitude was maintained at between 2,000 and 5,000 feet as Settle tried to stay in low-velocity winds as long as possible before starting up towards ceiling about noon.
Casually killing time and drifting along with hatches open, Settle and Fordney quickly began to feel at home in their little sphere. It was not a strange environment to either of them. They had spent many pre-flight hours in it. Procedure trainers being unknown in 1933, they had used the gondola for dry-runs and closed-hatch simulated flights to prove out the adequacy of the air regeneration system.
Of the equipment crammed into the 7 -foot ball, this was perhaps the most important. The heart of the system was a double-walled flask containing liquid oxygen which was evaporated to replace oxygen consumed by breathing. It could also be used to maintain or build up cabin pressure. To remove carbon dioxide and water vapor, absorbents used in the submarine service were employed. Anticipating latter-day “bailout bottles,” Momsen submarine escape lungs were carried to be worn in the event of having to parachute down from very high altitudes.
The chutes were attached to the shroud lines of the rigging. Each man wore a parachute harness. If he had to jump, he would quickly fasten the harness D-rings to the chute and dive over the side. A tie-down arrangement in the rigging would, like a static line, automatically open the parachute.
The gondola had a deck, 4 feet in diameter, to stand upon. Three tiers of shelves circled the white-painted interior of the sphere. Deck and shelves were supported by eight vertical stanchions attached directly to the load ring atop the gondola. Thus, the weight of men and shelf-mounted equipment was taken directly by the rigging of the balloon and not by the thin gondola skin. Ten observation ports, 3 inches in diameter, had been built into the shell. So had two hatches, each with an airtight double door. To control internal temperature, the upper half of the outer surface from the gondola’s equator to 60 degrees North latitude had been painted white, the lower half, black.
At 12: 45 p.m., over East Liverpool, Ohio, Settle began ballasting continuously. The ascent to the heights had begun in earnest. Hatches were closed at 13,750 feet. Ground visibility was poor and obscured by haze while the balloon rose ever higher into clearer and more rarefied air. As it did, the faint clicking of the cosmic ray counters became more insistent.
Peak altitude was reached about 2: 10. The altimeter read 58,000 feet. Exact height would not be known until the balloon’s return to earth and an examination made of its sealed barograph by the Bureau of Standards. At ceiling, cabin pressure held at the equivalent of 12,000 to 15,000 feet while inboard temperature ranged between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
In addition to three pieces of cosmic ray apparatus, there were cameras, a spectrograph, a light polarization indicator, and air sample bottles to monitor, operate, or use. Also aboard were standard color charts to compare with and determine the color of the sky.
Suspended in the rigging above the gondola was the aerial for the 3-watt radio transmitter carried. Dangling 60 feet below was the receiver antenna. Call letters were W9XZ. From the beginning of the flight, Settle and Fordney were in voice contact with ground stations. They talked with flight sponsors Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News, Niles Trammell, NBC vice president, and Rear Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics.
For two hours the balloon floated at near maximum altitude. With the approach of late afternoon, the hydrogen began to cool and contract. A loss of lift set in. As it did, Settle began ballasting again, this time to control the rate of descent.
From a ballast hopper inside the gondola poured a mixture of lead shot. One millimeter and one-half millimeter in diameter, the size of these pellets had been carefully selected to ensure that no one could be injured on the ground by their fall. Tests had shown that at terminal velocity they would not puncture the eyeball of a person looking skyward at the balloon.
Descent was maintained at a rate of less than 15 feet per second. At about 30,000 feet, inboard and outboard pressures were equalized. At 26,500, the hatches were opened. Now Settle could begin ballasting with equipment from inside the cabin. Out went the heavy radio batteries, tools, food, each item with a small parachute attached to it to slow its fall and protect life and property below.
At 5: 40 p.m., and a height of 800 feet, the A Century of Progress leveled off near Bridgeton, New Jersey. Owing to the near-darkness and proximity of the coast, Settle decided to land as soon as possible. Ten minutes later, ‘with the balloon almost down to the ground, he pulled the red-dyed rip cord. Seconds later, the envelope draped itself across a Jersey marsh.
The flight had ended in a bayou-like terrain of bays, inlets, and partly submerged patches of weeds and mud. The two men set out with a flashlight in various directions from the undamaged gondola to try to reach a house or telephone-always to be stopped by a body of water so large they were unable to see its other side in the darkness. Under the circumstances, they could do little else but return to the deflated balloon, wrap themselves in its folds for warmth, and await the return of daylight.
Next morning; while an aerial search began for the unreported fliers, Fordney stripped to his skin and, holding his clothes above his head, set out through the cold marsh waters in search of civilization. Settle stayed behind to protect the scientific instruments and particularly the barograph upon which the official record of altitude would depend. After sloshing along for about five miles, the Marine finally reached a farmhouse where he was able to telephone the balloon’s position (at the confluence of the Delaware and Cohansey Rivers) and report “all safe.” Shortly afterwords, state police, naval personnel, and flight officials arrived on the scene and the roll-up and clean-up operations began.
At three that afternoon, a Coast Guard plane landed at the Naval Air Station, Anacostia, with Settle and the barograph aboard. Two days later, on the 23rd, the Bureau of Standards, after examining the instrument, announced that an altitude of 61,237 feet had been achieved. This was about a thousand feet below that reached by the Russian balloon, USSR. The Soviet Union, however, was not at that time a member of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the aviation body which certifies world flying records. For this reason, the Russian record had never been recognized. On 4 January 1934, the FAI All-Union Communist Party Congress was advised that the Settle-Fordney flight had meeting in Moscow.
Despite the failure of their own record to be recognized, the Russian aeronauts sent cordial greetings and congratulations. Delivered to the Army and Navy Club in Washington, they took the form of cablegrams received by the Soviet Embassy and forwarded to Settle by mail. They came not only from the crew of the USSR but also from Fedor Ilin, President of the Committee-on-Construction Osoaviakhim, Russia’s popular aviation organization. Osoaviakhim was readying its own balloon for yet another Soviet “stratostat” ascent.
From Maxim Litvinoff, Foreign Commissar of the Soviet Union, came this message: HEARTY CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR GREAT ACHIEVEMENT. I AM SURE THAT YOUR COLLEAGUES IN THE SOVIET UNION HAVE WATCHED WITH GREATEST INTEREST YOUR FLIGHT. MAY BOTH OUR COUNTRIES CONTINUE TO CONTEST THE HEIGHTS IN EVERY SPHERE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNIQUE.
“Contest the heights”-these were the in the U. S. Army Air Corps-National words that Litvinoff used. The Soviet intent graphic Society balloon, Explorer, reached to compete with American technology had about 60,000 feet’ on 26 July 1934, barely been declared, the challenge given, the race parachuting to safety when the envelope towards space begun.
Russia’s response to the new American records came only two months after the Settle Fordney flight. The Osoaviakhim, with a crew of three, Fedossejenko, Vassenko, and Oustook climbed to a height of 72,182 feet on 30 January 1934. During descent, however, the balloon fell, out of control, killing all on board. The Soviets said that the crew, in their enthusiasm, had simply over-expended their ballast, failing to keep enough to control their descent. American balloonists, quick to doubt that their Russian counterparts would make such a fundamental error, were more inclined to believe that the Osoaviakhim, or Sirius as it was also known, had iced up during its descent through the clouds. One factor was unclear-why the flight had been attempted at such an unfavorable time of year.
Later, newspaper sources would provide an interesting, perhaps accurate, answer. That week in January was the week when the 17th All-Union Communist Party Congress was meeting in Moscow. Stalin, so the story went, anxious that a spectacular Soviet achievement take place while the Congress was in session, let it be known that he expected the Osoaviakhim to provide that achievement. When adverse mid-winter weather threatened to cancel the operation, he allegedly sent word direct: “You go… or else!” Perhaps, then, with good reason, Fedossejenko had leaned from the hatch at take-off to cry “Long Live the 17th Party Congress! Long Live the World Revolution!”
In April 1934, the First All-Union Statostat Congress was convened in Leningrad. During its deliberations, the Settle-Fordney ascent was described as “a sign of great advance in American Technology,” and Settle was referred to as the Russians’ worthiest competitor in their assault upon the upper air.
Settle, however, could no longer compete. Due for a change in duty, he had been transferred to China waters, there to take commence of the Yangtze River gunboat Palos. Others would have to take his place.
They did. Kepner, Stevens and Anderson, the US Army Air Corps-National Geographic Society balloon, Explorer, reached about 60,000 feet on 26 July 1934, barely parachuting to safety when the envelope failed and its hydrogen burned in flight.
Drs. Jean and Jeanette Piccard, to whom the ownership of the A Century of Progress had reverted following the Settle-Fordney flight, took the balloon skyward once more on 23 October 1934, this time to 57,579 feet.
At this point, the Soviets returned to the fringes-of-space sweepstakes. Their entry was the balloon of Varigo and Christopzille. In a caution-filled ascent reflecting the accident of the Osoaviakhim, they went to 53,000 feet on 26 June 1935.
Armistice Day that same year saw Stevens and Anderson attain 72,395 feet in the Explorer II.
Thus, with balloons did the United States fist answer the Soviet Commissar Litvinoff. Today, three decades later, Americans and Russians “continue to contest the heights” with the newest flight vehicles their respective technologies can provide.