A Race to the Stratosphere in 1933

Long before the Cold War, Soviets and Americans dueled to reach the top of the atmosphere.

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Crew boarding the Stratostat SSSR on September 30, 1933.

By the early 1930s, pilots around the world had been testing the limits of human and airplane endur­ance at high altitudes for years: Apollo Soucek to 43,166 feet on 4 June 1930; Cyril Uwins to 43,976 feet on 16 September 1932; Renato Donati to 47,572 feet on 12 April 1934. Aviation experts understood that the challenge was to master these ceilings, where the lack of oxygen meant the need for several innovations: pressurized airplane cabins for life support or variable pitch propellers and newly designed airplane engines (tur­bocompressors and superchargers) to fly in the lighter air.

At first the competition took peaceful forms, not so much with airplanes as with high-altitude “stratostat” (stratospheric balloon) records. This was a race for the stratosphere actually launched by an unlikely character, Auguste Piccard. He was a Swiss national, pro­fessor of physics at the University of Brussels, and a research spe­cialist on gamma rays. On 27 May 1931, over the course of seventeen hours, Piccard and his assistant, Charles Kipfer, achieved a turning point in world history. Their stratospheric balloon, the FNRS (initials for the Belgian National Foundation for Scientific Research), made a relatively short trip from Augsburg, Germany, to the Gurgl gla­cier at the Austrian Tyrol. But they were also the first to reach pre­viously unknown heights: 51,775 feet.

The scientific objectives of the mission were mundane enough: the observation and measurement of cosmic rays (about their nature and intensity and movements), along with chemical analyses of the air and recordings of temperatures. But the flight was also filled with all the drama and danger of a science fiction story. The launch unfolded in scenes that looked as if they were cut from the movie The Woman in the Moon: the gondola ever so carefully transported by a small railroad track from its hangar to the launch site; huge floodlights illuminating the site deep into the night; hundreds of workers and spectators crowding the field; the pilots returning home as heroes to great public acclaim, their admirers clamoring to sign their ini­tials to the capsule.

The spherical gondola was Piccard’s unique invention, prefigur­ing the stratospheric gondolas to come and even the Sputnik space­craft many years hence. It was the first of many kinds. Weighing 850 pounds fully outfitted, it was a seven-foot-diameter airtight ball of welded aluminum and tin (of normal atmospheric pressure and oxygen), partially based on the technology to make sealed vats for the storage of beer. Piccard provisioned it with pure-oxygen dis­pensers and a recirculating system to cleanse the carbon dioxide. It was raised by a giant balloon (the largest to date), some thirty-three yards in diameter and holding 500,000 cubic feet of highly flamma­ble hydrogen gas. When fully expanded, once its gases were warmed by the sun’s rays, it rose at speeds of twenty miles per hour, pear-shaped at first but eventually rounded. It was a “perfect sphere” in Piccard’s words and a rival to the morning star, Venus, still visible after daylight, which several observers even confused with his craft.

The flight nearly ended in disaster several times. Piccard spent about a half-hour trying to staunch an oxygen leak at the site of a one-inch hole, where a sounding instrument would not fit. He even­tually plugged it with a net and paste but only after anxiously hear­ing the precious air “whistling” out as the craft rose. A failed motor meant that the gondola could not turn away from the heat of the sun, internal temperatures reaching up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The intense heat bent the rubber joints, allowing even more air to escape. At the end of the flight the descent valve rope broke, so Pic­card had to take extra care in watching and waiting for the setting sun and with it the cooler temperatures that allowed the balloon to descend safely.

Piccard understood the drama of his own heroism, writing in his logbook: “12:12 pm—All human records bro­ken. . . . We are suffering intensely. We release more hydrogen.”

The media reported Piccard’s achievement with bravado, what one reporter called “the greatest distance from earth ever attained by man.” Here were the first humans to reach the stratosphere and return alive. Piccard had literally “raised the roof off the world.” Or as he wrote in his diary of the trip, “As we rose above the blue sky, we saw the world through it in a fairylike bluish haze of extraordi­nary beauty.” He magnified the feat with a second twelve-hour flight on 18 August 1932, using the same balloon (but a different gondola) to rise to an altitude of just over ten miles, flying from Zurich to the coastline of Lake Garda in Italy (with his student Max Cosyns). They reached another world record. Cosyns, in turn, took the same balloon to 52,952 feet on 18 August 1934 (with copi­lot Neree van der Elst), traveling from Hour Havanne, Belgium, to Zenavelje, Yugoslavia—one thousand miles away.

American, European, and Russian news reports pictured Piccard’s stratostat balloon as having risen dramatically beyond the very cur­vature of the earth, a human-made ascent to match and challenge the age-old meteors falling from space. Piccard’s feats taught Americans to become “stratosphere-conscious.” He became their “Columbus, his balloon the Santa Maria, of the stratosphere.” Both had discovered new continents—one of air, the other of land. This was nothing less than humanity’s ascent into the “void of space,” into the “cold kingdom of mystery,” from which we might survey the globe, explore cosmic rays, and test the very limits of human endurance. It was a prelude to the coming stratospheric and space rockets that would ascend to infinite altitudes.

For Russian publicists Piccard had raised anew the demands of “super­aviation,” work originally done by Konstantin Tsiolkovskii so many years ago and from which Russia had now fallen drastically behind. Piccard was “the key that has opened the door leading to the stratosphere” and even to space beyond. He was a clarion call to action. Soviet Russia needed to reach for extreme altitudes: by stratostats to match the West and by rockets to leap ahead.

Piccard posed a special challenge to the United States, thanks to his tour during the winter of 1932–33, at the first peak of the strato­sphere craze, making his way to Chicago’s “Century of Progress” exhi­bition, where his ascent was presented as a culminating moment in human progress, with American stratospheric ascents still to come. He brought along an “exact reproduction” of his stratostat cabin, the one he had flown to such high altitudes, photographs showing his head peeping out of the porthole. He also claimed to have invented a stratospheric rocket. The crowds were in awe.

Piccard’s feats and boasts were in quick time eclipsed by Russian and American stratostats, which were engaged in an international “race to the stratosphere,” one that mildly prefigured their later “race to space.” Publicists in both countries fashioned the competition as a friendly but heated rivalry, exchanging boasts that “the word ‘impossible’ does not exist in the Soviet dictionary” or that America’s stratostat was “an exclamation mark 300 feet tall, punctuating the most awe­some of all man’s attempts to solve the riddles of the stratosphere.” Both countries openly exploited the balloon ascents for either pro­paganda or public relations, though at first they were racing more against Piccard than against each other.

The USSR opened the race on 30 September 1933 with the launch of the Stratostat SSSR, built by the Soviet Air Force, bigger than Piccard’s FNRS by some 380,000 cubic feet in volume and 17 more feet in diameter. The gondola improved on Piccard’s with a unique duralumin shell (three millimeters thick), more internal space, port­holes, oxygen tanks (with an improved carbon dioxide cleansing sys­tem), and electronic descent controls. It also marked the USSR’s first world aviation record, beating Piccard and reaching an altitude of 60,695 feet, or just over 11 miles, although for polit­ical reasons none of the Soviet Stratostat records were recognized by the official body, the International Aeronautical Federation. The achievement inspired a series of forthcoming Stratostat launches to debut Soviet technological prowess on the world stage and reach new records, all with the explicit approval of the Communist Party’s top political bureau.

It also inspired a famous scene in the film Circus (1936) in which the pilot shot out of a cannon, an acrobatic per­formance entitled “Flight into the Stratosphere” (partly inspired by the Italian American Hugo Zacchini’s act at the Leningrad Circus, the “human cannonball”). A candy was named after the Stratostat SSSR’s record-breaking reach, the Stratosfera, a piece of semisweet cubed chocolate with a small rocket on the wrapper, heralding the future of stratospheric flight. The term now entered the popular vocabulary as a metaphor for accomplishment: everyone wanted to achieve success with their own Stratostat and reach their own personal “stratosphere.” The crew of G. A. Prokof’ev (a Red Army balloonist), E. K. Birnbaum (a military pilot), and K. D. Godunov (a balloon engineer) became Soviet heroes on the order of Stakhanovites and border guards, con­querors of production and distance. As “stratonauts,” they enjoyed the special privilege, with the aerial rescuers of the famous Cheliushkin expedition and with Soviet pilots of the massive ANT-20 airplane, as “victors over the air.” The poet Demian Bednyi celebrated the three in verse:

By the measure of collective glee, we’ve conquered all distance
To the heroes of the stratosphere three, we send our compliments!”

Several publicists went even further, honoring the stratonauts as future cosmonauts of a kind. As one review put it, like Piccard before them but going even higher, they had raised the “roof of the world.” They were new “vertical Lindberghs.” They had fulfilled the “plan­etary” dreams of Tsiolkovskii to reach beyond the planet: first by stratospheric balloon, soon enough by rocket. The path was predeter­mined: “From the cultivation of one-sixth of the earth to cultivation of the whole universe, such is the future creative path of our Bolshe­viks.” This imagery was reinforced by the very call sign of the craft, “Mars,” which meant that the radio broadcasts from the stratostat began with the phrase “Mars calling” (Mars govorit). As once aliens sent interplanetary signals to Earth in the imaginings of the old sci­ence fiction and cosmic poetry, now we Earthlings were actually com­municating with our own planet as nascent space beings ourselves.

The United States soon responded in kind, launching the Cen­tury of Progress stratostat on 20 November 1933, named in honor of the Chicago fair that year. It was piloted by Lt. Cdr. T. G. W. Set­tle of the U.S. Navy and Major Fordney of the U.S. Marine Corps, reaching 61,237 feet, traveling from Akron, Ohio, to Bridgeton, New Jersey, besting the Russians by roughly 542 feet, a recognized U.S. world record.

The Century of Progress flew again a year later, now piloted by Auguste Piccard’s twin brother, Jean, and the first woman to the stratosphere, his wife, Jeanette. The pair set off from Detroit on 23 October 1934, congratulated with a wave by none other than a very excited Henry Ford (it launched from Ford Airport), accompanied by a group of children from his Greenfield Village school. The bal­loon reached a modest 10.9-mile altitude in its flight over Lake Erie, Sandusky, Cleveland, and Akron. Due to cloud cover, the Piccards saw little of the Ohio sites below, landing in humble circumstances on the John Fulton farm, four miles outside of Cadiz.

For the Soviets the race with the West also turned into a race with themselves, a competition between the state-sponsored Stratostat SSSR projects in Moscow and a “civilian” project in Leningrad, under Sergei Kirov’s patronage, named the Osoaviakhim 1 (for the Society to Assist the Defense and Aviation-Chemical Industries of the USSR). The civilian project was financed by a public campaign (asking for one-ruble donations) and boasted several alleged improvements beyond the Stratostat SSSR: a redesigned gondola of thin stainless steel; the balloon made of rubber-coated muslin; the gondola and balloon attached by a reinforced rope suspension; along with a sophisticated scientific laboratory of measuring and photographic equipment.

The stratostat took its maiden flight to coincide with the meeting of the infamous Seventeenth Communist Party Congress, the ironic “Congress of Victors,” whose elites Stalin would target for purge and terror within a few years. On 30 January 1934, with the call sign “Sirius” (for the brightest star in the nighttime sky), it sent regular communications via wireless back to “Earth,” relays that were dra­matically reported on the radio, in the newspapers, and on the floor of the party congress itself. At 9:20 a.m., just after liftoff from the out­skirts of Moscow, the craft was already at 1,600 meters, sun filling the cabin. At 11:42 a.m. Sirius sent a “fiery greeting” to the “tribune of the world revolution, comrade Stalin.” The craft was already “storming an altitude of 21 kilometers.” But by morning of the next day the sorry crash of the Osoaviakhim 1 was already known: the crew was dead.

A number of theories circulated about the cause of the crash. One leading speculation held that under the political pressure of the Communist Party, the crew had tried to rise too far and fast, even as high as twenty-two thousand meters (as one of the journal entries purportedly showed). Another early claim held that at such a height an ice buildup may have weighed the balloon down, which, when combined with the sun heating up the internal gases, may have also caused a rapid depressurization and free fall. In the end the official explanation concluded that after too high an ascent and too rapid a descent, the gondola had become unstrapped from the balloon due to poor design and construction, the apparatus crashing to the ground around 4:30 p.m.

The three crew members were given top honors, portrayed as “the best representatives of the scientific-technical intelligentsia” and the new political class. The pilot, Pavel Fedoseenko, was a flyer and Red Army officer; Il’ia Usyskin, a physics graduate student and Young Communist leader; and Andrei Vasenko, an aeronautical engineer. Together they were the “fearless stormers of the heavens.” They were Bolshevik “revolutionaries of science,” ready to make any sacrifice for party and country. Together they “wrote a new and definitive page in the book of history’s struggle against nature.”

But the acco­lades went further. These stratonauts had, according to the poets of the day, reached for the “mysterious distances” and the “fabulous heights.” Indeed, “they went to distances where no man had gone before.” Nikolai Bukharin teased these images, portraying the three as interplanetary travelers of a kind, who had set off for the “fath­omless depths of space,” who had literally discovered a “new world, even newer than the Americas.” They were also the three stars who had fallen from the stars, cascading like fiery comets. A song from the Communist Youth League summed up the cosmic theme:

For those who led a starry route through the skies,
The Komsomol will follow,
To infinity and beyond,
To the very stars
It will take up its post! . . .
Though they perished, their successors are coming
Piloting a star-fleet their way—
To the planets,
As guests of the celestial host,
We will raise our banner!

Condensed excerpt from Rockets and Revolution: A Cultural History of Early Spaceflight by Michael G. Smith. Reprinted by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2015 by Michael G. Smith. Available at nebraskapress.unl.edu.

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Rockets and Revolution: A Cultural History of Early Spaceflight

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