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First High-Altitude Photo

In 1935, nearly 14 miles (23 kilometers) above the Earth's surface, U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Albert Stevens snapped the first color photograph taken from the stratosphere and the first photograph showing the curve of Earth's surface.

Photo: Stratosphere Balloon
Photograph by H. Lee Wells, Jr.

The photograph was taken as part of the joint National Geographic Society-U.S. Army Air Corps Stratosphere Project, an effort to set new records in flight altitude and take the first step toward space travel.

After a previous unsuccessful attempt with craft Explorer, scientists made modifications to the new balloon and gondola of Explorer II. With a capacity of 3.7 million cubic feet (105,000 cubic meters) of gas, the new balloon was even larger than that which had lifted the Explorer aloft, and the largest yet constructed. The extra size was needed because helium was now used in place of hydrogen (which proved so dangerous when it caused the Explorer to explode) and it takes proportionally more helium than hydrogen to raise a balloon into the stratosphere. Scientists also designed a new hermetically sealed gondola from magnesium alloy. The new craft was christened Explorer II.

Explorer II was launched from the "Stratobowl" near Rapid City, South Dakota, on July 12. Stevens was the commander and oversaw the scientific and photographic work, and Captain Orvil Anderson was the pilot. Unfortunately the craft's balloon ripped and collapsed shortly after inflation, so a new launch was scheduled for autumn.


Finally, on Armistice Day, November 11, before a crowd of soldiers, scientists, engineers, and even a local Sioux Indian tribe, the balloon was successfully launched. Its ascent, despite some initial worries, was nearly perfect, and it rose to 72,395 feet (22,065 meters), or nearly 14 miles (23 kilometers) above the Earth's surface, a record height for manned flight.

At this dizzying altitude, where the sky is banded from white through light blue to the deep blue-black of space, Stevens took his ground-breaking photograph. The pilots monitored the performance of nearly a ton of scientific instruments while maintaining perfect radio contact with the ground and, thanks to the coordinating efforts of the National Broadcasting Corporation, with officials and loved ones in such distant places as London, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Australia, and South Africa. Millions tuned in to listen over their home radio sets, and millions more eagerly anticipated photos from unprecedented heights.

Explorer II drifted approximately 225 miles (362 kilometers) to the east before it landed intact—in the midst of a flood of cars driving across the fields to greet it. Stevens and Anderson each received a Hubbard Medal and an Oak Leaf Cluster to add to their Distinguished Flying Crosses. The new manned flight altitude record they established remained for 21 years, until in 1956 Air Force pilot Captain Ivan Kincheloe shattered it by flying a Bell X2 to a height of 126,200 feet (38,465 meters).

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