'Discoverers on an Old Sphere'

One of the hardest parts of preparing an article, and I think most writers will agree with me here, is getting the beginning just right. What's the right "point of entry" to the subject being discussed? What aspect of it should you address first?

A few weeks ago when I was writing what I intended to be my review of the National Geographic documentary Space Dive, I went through that same process of mulling over the right place to begin. One natural place to begin a discussion of high-altitude ballooning and National Geographic seemed to be with an object I had seen at the Smithsonian a few months before -- a high-altitude balloon gondola with the words "National Geographic Society" painted on its side. However, when I realized that the focus of my story was specifically the Excelsior and Stratos projects, Joseph Kittinger's Excelsior III jump seemed to be the only real place to begin.

But I knew I wanted to come back to that gondola in the Smithsonian, because it had a fascinating story of its own. And because this month marked the 125th anniversary of the National Geographic Society, it seemed like the right time to share the story of another of the Society's awesome-but-little-known 1930s explorers. Because decades before National Geographic covered Felix Baumgartner or even Joseph Kittinger, it had another star stratospheric balloonist in Captain Albert Stevens.

According to his college yearbook (University of Maine, Class of 1907), Albert W. Stevens was not the sort of person who did things by halves: "He works nights, plugs days, and in the meantime turns out for track and trains as faithfully as the next man. His life is one strenuous strenuousity." As an adult, he routinely worked 48 hours straight, grew a pretty sweet mustache, and, after trying his hand at gold mining in Alaska, served in World War I as a photoreconnaissance specialist, which at that time meant leaning out of the back seat of a biplane with a very large and unwieldy camera while flying extremely low over the enemy lines as enemy soldiers were shooting at him.

After the war, Stevens continued to push the envelope with his flying and photographic skills, becoming a pioneer of aerial photography. He celebrated President Hoover's inauguration by using magnesium flares to take the first aerial night shots of the White House and Capitol, and was the first person to photograph the moon's shadow on the Earth during a solar eclipse. In 1924, he joined an expedition to the Amazon organized by Dr. Hamilton Rice of Harvard's Institute for Geographic Exploration.

The night after the expedition arrived in Manaus, Brazil, there was a revolt, and Stevens and the other explorers heard shooting outside of their hotel just as they had settled down to dinner. The hotel staff came over to close the window by their table for protection, but Stevens waved them away -- he wanted to watch what was happening outside. "For most of us this was our first revolution and we had no intention of missing any of it." Stevens casually wrote in his National Geographic article about the expedition. A few hours later, after the shooting had died down, he went out with some friends to examine the extent of the damage to the city and talk to the soldiers on both sides.

That was just the sort of guy Albert Stevens was.

A few weeks after that eventful start, the expedition started out along the Rio Negro -- most of the explorers by steamer, and Stevens and his pilot Walter Hinton (who had made the first transatlantic flight a few years earlier) flying overhead in a floatplane. Early in the tropical morning, they could identify streams and tributaries from the air by watching mist rise off them, which proved very useful in making maps to help the group traveling by boat.

From above, the Amazon resembled an ocean to Stevens, who wrote:

"Below us, a sea of green billowed away over the low hills to a slender blue-black shore of mountains far to the west. From our elevation the palms scattered through the forest below looked like hundreds of starfish at the bottom of an ocean, their lighter green focusing in strong contrast against the dark tones of the jungle."

While flying ahead to find a suitable location for a supply camp, Hinton and Stevens landed at a spot that seemed promising, only for the underside of the plane to hit a submerged rock that dug a deep gash into it. They were able to take off again, but because night was coming soon, they were forced to land again, on a small, sandy island in the middle of the river.

It took them eleven days to patch up the plane and wait for the river to rise high enough to take off. The biggest problem that the two faced on their "Robinson Crusoe Island" was the Amazonian ants that crawled all over everything -- one night Hinton hung his shirt up on a fishing line to let it dry, only to find the next morning that aunts had crawled up the line and eaten it! "... it nearly fell to pieces in his hands, being mostly holes."

But on their third night marooned on the island, Stevens and Hinton were awoken by loud noises in the middle of the night -- like a large animal was prowling around their camp, just on the other side of the campfire. Hinton thought it sounded like an elephant -- of course, he knew elephants don't live in South America, but midnight, stranded in the middle of the jungle is not exactly a scenario conducive to calm, logical thought -- while Stevens was worried it might be a crocodile. He suggested that they raise their hammocks higher above the ground, just in case.

Once they were out of bed, though, Stevens wanted to investigate -- "Neither of us was inclined to wait passively to be devoured by some unknown beast, so we decided to meet the monster." He grabbed up a flashlight and revolver ("too small to be of any use"), Hinton armed himself with a machete and an ax, and they headed towards the source of the noise. (Are you getting the sense that Captain Stevens wasn't all that big on the whole "regard-for-personal-safety" thing or is it just me?)

The flashlight beam scared the animal, and they heard it crashing away through the jungle, before they could get a good look at it. In the morning, investigating the tracks it had made, they realized it had been a tapir, a large, but nonthreatening herbivorous mammal.

With their plane fixed, Stevens and Hinton rejoined the expedition and got back to mapping flights. From the air, they had a unique view of terrain no non-native had ever seen, scouting out rapids and waterfalls for the benefit of Dr. Rice's party on the boat. "In the midst of the green, we would see a thread of silver water, spun from a source lost in the forest, falling over a sheer cliff into an inkwell of blackness hundreds of feet below..." As quick and useful as aerial photography was for mapmaking, Stevens noted that it produced a less-thrilling narrative than hardship-ridden exploration on foot: "...but obviously the story of De Soto, La Salle, or any of the early explorers would provide not nearly such rich reading today if they had used airplanes."

A decade later, back in Cambridge, Captain Stevens would share his expertise in aerial photography -- and his favorite Fairchild K-6 camera -- with a young Harvard grad student who was planning an expedition of his own to Alaska to make survey flights over the area around Mount McKinley. That student, Bradford Washburn, whose story I told back in July, would later become a famous cartographer and wilderness photographer in his own right, as well as the founder of the Museum of Science... (Isn't it wild how things are connected like that?)

All good and well, you say, but I've promised the stratosphere and delivered the Amazon. What about that black-and-white gondola in the Smithsonian? Well, as strange as it sounds in our present era of semi-regular human spaceflight, in the 1920s and 30s, the questions of how high up in the Earth's atmosphere a person could safely go and what they might find there represented great unknowns. (Back in 1913, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had written a short story called "The Horror of the Heights" in which an unlucky pilot encountered terrible monsters lurking above thirty thousand feet [9,144 meters], the altitude of modern commercial airliners.) In 1927, Captain Hawthorne Gray of the Army Air Corps ascended to 42,740 feet (13,027.152 meters) in an open balloon basket, but returned dead, killed not by upper-atmospheric monsters but by the thin air and the failure of his oxygen equipment.

It was Swiss inventor Auguste Piccard who overcame those limitations by creating a pressurized, airtight gondola, within which pilots could breathe and conduct scientific observations in relative comfort. In 1931, Piccard and his assistant Paul Kipfer rose to 51,762 feet (15,777 meters), becoming the first humans to pass into our atmosphere's second layer, the stratosphere. Piccard and Kipfer didn't see any monsters, either, (sorry, Sir Arthur) but they gathered valuable information about incoming cosmic rays. In a proto-Space-Race, teams from other nations eagerly attempted similar missions to greater and greater altitudes.

In 1934, Albert Stevens convinced the Army Air Corps and the National Geographic Society to sponsor their own high-altitude balloon mission, to gather scientific data and recapture the flight altitude record for the United States. Their first balloon, Explorer, was launched on July 28, 1934 from a canyon in South Dakota that newspapers called the "Stratobowl". (Which sounds like some kind of strange sporting event...) Inside the gondola were Stevens and two other Air Corps officers, Major William Kepner and Captain Orvil Anderson, who wore leather football helmets borrowed from a local High School for added protection. Like their more-famous successors, Kepner, Stevens, and Anderson would end up jumping out of their gondola -- but not intentionally...

The launch of the balloon itself went very well, with the crew safe and happy inside their capsule, the scientific equipment working as planned, and the radio hook-up allowing them to communicate easily with their ground crew and the spectators. But at 60,613 feet (18,474.8 meters), just a thousand feet short of the altitude record, the balloon ripped, sending the gondola falling back to Earth.

"At 10,000 feet, we really should have left the balloon, but we did not wish to abandon the scientific apparatus. So we stayed on." Stevens wrote, "At 6,000 feet, we again talked the matter over and decided we had better leave. The last altimeter reading I gave was 5,000 feet above sea level. Since this part of Nebraska was 2,000 feet above sea level, we were in reality only a little more than a half mile from the ground."

Kepner and Anderson parachuted out, and Captain Stevens was preparing to follow them when the balloon exploded. (Unlike later stratospheric balloons, this was a HYDROGEN balloon, not a helium one, and as would be demonstrated four years later with the Hindenburg, hydrogen gas can be very dangerous like that...) The gondola fell even faster, "dropping like a stone" in Stevens' words. He tried to push himself through the hatch twice, but the wind pressure pushed him back in. Trying one more time, he made it out, and opened his parachute, only to have some of the balloon's fabric fall on top of it. For a second, it looked bad, but then the parachute slid free of the balloon fabric, keeping Stevens safely afloat as the gondola crashed to the ground.

However, Stevens' landing, as he described it, was far less-dignified than what the NGS' future space-divers would experience -- his parachute dragged him face-first through the mud of a cornfield before he stopped. Stevens and Kepner went to the house of the farmer who owned the field to make some telephone calls informing people that they had survived. The crew had worn long underwear under their flying suits to protect against upper-atmospheric cold, but on the ground in July, this attire was stifling. So Stevens changed in the farmer's bathroom and hung his long underwear on a fence before going off to make his phone calls. When he came out, well, I'll quote verbatim from his National Geographic article again...

"When I came out, I found that souvenir hunters had taken my underwear! I have not seen it since. Perhaps by this time it has been cut into small squares. Maybe, like pieces of balloon cloth that have been received by mail, some of it may be sent in with the request that it be autographed!"

(At least now we know that fans in the 1930s could be crazy, too...)

Now, most people who had fallen from 11 miles up, nearly died, had all of their scientific equipment destroyed, been dragged through the mud, and had their underwear stolen would not be willing to repeat the experience that had caused that string of events any time soon. But as we've established, Albert Stevens was not like most people. So, in 1935, he and Orvil Anderson launched aboard Explorer II on another stratospheric flight...

After some quick dumping of the lead shot they carried as ballast, the gondola lifted off the ground and kept ascending. All of their equipment worked fine, including the microphone that allowed people at home to listen in live on their radio sets as the mission progressed. Anderson talked to his wife through the radio hookup.

"Where are you?" She asked, jokingly.

"I am up in the air." He joked back, adding that they were at 54,000 feet (16,459 meters) and still climbing.

The radio equipment also allowed the balloonists to be interviewed live by an announcer in London and to overhear the chatter between reporters covering their flight.

"Don't play up this record business, boys, until we are sure that they have gotten down safely. There is still plenty of chance for them to crash and they have to come down alive to make it a record." One announcer advised his colleagues. Despite that reporter's doubts, Explorer II did indeed reach a record height -- 72,395 feet, or 22,066 meters.

Stevens described the view from that altitude thusly:

"The earth could be seen plainly underneath... and hundreds of miles in every direction through the side portholes. It was a vast expanse of brown, apparently flat, stretching on and on. Wagon roads and automobile highways were invisible, houses were invisible, and railroads could be recognized only by an occasional cut or fill. The larger farms were discernable as tiny rectangular areas. Occasional streaks of green vegetation showed the presence of streams."

While they could see the sky above them becoming very dark, the balloon blocked their view directly upwards, although Stevens wrote that he was sure it would have been dark enough to see stars if the balloon hadn't been in the way. At the highest angle visible, the sky looked "[not] completely black; it was rather a black with the merest suspicion of very dark blue."

There were no accidents this time, and Anderson and Stevens landed safely. Their intact instruments delivered a wealth of knowledge about near-space conditions, and their altitude record would stand for 15 years, until the lead-in to the Space Age brought a new era of stratospheric research with the Stratolab and Manhigh programs. And just seven years after that, Yuri Gagarin would orbit the Earth, setting horizons higher still.

But Albert Stevens wasn't around to see any of that. He died in 1949, with the Explorer II flight still, as he had titled his article on it, "Man's Farthest Aloft". But in the conclusion of that article, we see some suggestion of the future:

"To get still more altitude, the balloon may be flown to a maximum ceiling by dropping all ballast, and saving none for descent; the gondola may be cut away at the top of the flight on a large parachute ... The fall of such a gondola on a parachute in the extremely thin upper air of the stratosphere would be for tens of thousands of feet before the parachute would really retard it. That would be a ride!"

That, twenty years after his death, a man might take an even greater ride, dispensing with the gondola and purposefully leaping out to parachute to Earth from near-space, might have seemed crazy even to Albert Stevens.

Or would it have? In the 1920s, Stevens had tested a parachute and oxygen equipment in a jump from the then-dizzying altitude of 26,500 feet (8,077.2 meters), in a precursor to Joseph Kittinger's Excelsior leaps. In fact, in his 1961 book, The Long, Lonely Leap, Kittinger expressed admiration for how carefully Stevens had prepared for that test, with a level of thoroughness comparable to his own mission checklists three decades later.

Perhaps, then, the fiction writer in me imagines, if the magic of the Society's anniversary (with perhaps a bit of help from the Tablet of Ahkmenrah) caused Captain Stevens' spirit to return to the National Geographic headquarters and compare notes with the society's later balloonists, he would quickly recognize their adventures as a natural outgrowth of his own. A combination of high-altitude balloon ascension and testing of escape equipment, together in one mission, with just a progression of scale and some technological advances -- from leather football helmets to supersonic pressure suits and radio hookups to Internet livestreams.

Stevens had written that his Amazon flights had given Hinton and himself the chance to be "discoverers on an old sphere that has been pretty well discovered, charted, and nailed down", but I think he'd be pleased to know that others had built on his work to help move exploration beyond "this old sphere" and out into the larger Universe. And then, in the classic explorers' club scene, I suppose he would settle into an easy chair and ask Messrs. Kittinger and Baumgartner for the blow-by-blow of their great adventures...


[The italicized quotes in this post come from Albert Stevens' articles "Exploring the Valley of the Amazon in a Hydroplane", "Exploring the Stratosphere" and "Man's Farthest Aloft", all originally published in National Geographic magazine and reprinted in the book Worlds to Explore: Classic Tales of Travel & Adventure from National Geographic, edited by Mark Jenkins.]