Before the Space Race, there was the Balloon Race. In the 1930s, the United States and the Soviet Union launched a series of balloons that carried pilots and researchers to higher and higher altitudes. Like the rockets and satellites that would follow a couple of decades later, the balloon flights helped develop new technologies, stoked national pride, and contributed to our knowledge of what's above the ground.
One of the flights took place 75 years ago today.
American military officers Thomas Settle and Chester Fordney piloted the balloon, which was named "Century of Progress" after the Chicago World's Fair. It took off from Akron, Ohio, on November 20th, 1933.
The balloon reached an altitude of more than 61,000 feet -- a few hundred feet higher than the record set by Soviet balloonists just a couple of months earlier.
Fordney described the view from the stratosphere for reporters:
The weather up in the stratosphere is more or less a static affair. It's an isothermal region where the temperature doesn't change. There are no clouds, there's no precipitation, and the Sun shines all the time. It's a perfectly beautiful thing.
Fordney and Settle carried instruments to measure conditions in the stratosphere, and to study cosmic rays. Their readings helped scientists learn more about these mysterious particles from beyond Earth. And the flight set the stage for higher journeys -- and more discoveries -- as the Balloon Race continued.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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