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Touching Space: The Story of Project Manhigh

by Gregory P. Kennedy, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, Pa., 2007, $24.95.

When we think of the nation’s space program, the first landing on the moon always comes to mind. But the road to the moon was a long one, beginning when French brothers Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier launched the world’s first hot air balloon in 1783. Their daring venture led nearly 200 years later to that day in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong announced that first small step for man. In between there was a small fraternity of other brave men who made exploratory trips to the edge of outer space in small capsules suspended from plastic balloons. It is their story that Gregory Kennedy tells in Touching Space, to remind us how those interim steps to space flight were made and how difficult they were.

In recent times, there were the scary near stratosphere flights in the 1930s by Auguste Piccard and his wife, the pioneering attempts by U.S. Army Air Corps pilots and the experimental launches in the 1950s with ever-stronger balloons that carried the first American space biology capsules aloft with monkeys and mice on board.

Kennedy details the flight experiments of Air Force Colonel John Paul Stapp in acceleration and deceleration and the biological flights directed by Major David G. Simons, all in anticipation of sending humans to unprecedented altitudes under Project Manhigh. The drama of the three Project Manhigh flights unfolds in Kennedy’s description of the many trials and tests to determine the effects of high altitude on humans. Life-savings details had to be studied such as cabin atmosphere, pressure suit limitations, effects of pressure loss, pilot claustrophobia, capsule escape techniques, high altitude parachute jumps, communications, tracking and recovery of the capsules. Captain Joseph W. Kittinger joined the project when the time arrived to send someone into the stratosphere.

There would be three Manhigh flights, with Kittinger piloting the first. On June 2, 1956, he embarked on a 12-hour mission, during which he was forced to communicate via Morse code. When the cabin oxygen supply leaked at 96,000 feet, he crash-landed in a Minnesota creek. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the flight.

Simons became the pilot on the Manhigh II flight from Crosby, Minn., reaching a record 101,500 feet in August 1957. High frequency radio communications failed, and he elected to remain aloft all night to complete experiments. The balloon dropped into a storm as the air cooled, then ascended after sunrise to 100,000 feet, and he was unable to concentrate. When Simons began to read backwards, Stapp ordered him to descend, as it was an indication that his carbon dioxide level was becoming poisonous.

Manhigh II ended 32 hours after takeoff with a hard landing in an alfalfa field in South Dakota. It had proved that a human could survive in a space environment if he was kept warm, given oxygen, protected from temperature extremes and isolated from the effects of a vacuum. Simons also received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Manhigh III was transferred to Alamogordo, N.M., with Lieutenant Clifton McClure as the pilot. He made his initial flight on October 8, 1958, but problems developed from the start. The huge plastic bag burst and had to be replaced. Inside the capsule, McClure accidentally tripped his parachute open but managed to repack it himself rather than halt the mission. When he reached 99,700 feet, his body temperature rose to 101.4 degrees, and he found his drinking water container had jammed. Determined to continue even though his body temperature rose above 105 degrees, he remained aloft until ordered to descend. He bumped to a night landing in mountainous terrain, climbed out of the gondola grinning and vetoed the idea of needing a stretcher for a trip to the hospital.

Although the Manhigh III balloon did not remain at the planned altitude, McClure’s experience proved that it takes a special kind of individual with great psychological stamina and a determination to use his physical reserves when under extreme stress.

Kennedy also summarizes several postManhigh balloon flights in a concluding chapter. The knowledge gained paved the way for Project Mercury and subsequent NASA space programs.


Originally published in the May 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here