World Record Balloon Flight Set By Navy At 113,739.9 Feet

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USS Antietam (CVS 36) during Project Stratolab in which the first manned balloon carrier landing was made. The balloon was manned by Commander Malcolm D. Ross, USNR, and Lieutenant Victor A. Prather, MC, USN, 29 April 1961. (National Archives photograph: USN 1054270)

On 04 May 1961 Navy balloon pilot Commander Malcolm Ross and flight surgeon Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather (MC)  ascended to the world record height of 113,739.9 feet above sea level in their open gondola Strato-Lab. This record still holds today in 2011 for manned balloon ascent.

View of the Strato-Lab high gondola during a test, at left, the pilots Ross and Lewis in their pressure suits talk with Captain Norman Lee Barr, Flight surgeon for the project. (Photo: National Geographic's Tomas J. Abercrombie)

The Navy Strato-Lab program of the 1950’s and 1960’s was instrumental in research that would aid our manned space exploration program.  All American astronauts own a debt to the success of this program. Strato-Lab experiments were instrumental in finding evidence that protons from solar flare activity posed a serious risk to humans working in space.

The record-setting flight on 04 May 1961 from the USS Antietam was scheduled to test the new Navy Mark IV pressure suit. The Mark IV suit’s performance impressed NASA scientists and a modified version was selected  for use by the Project Mercury astronauts.  Strato-Lab remained in the air for 9 hours 54 minutes, and covered a horizontal distance of 140 miles  during its flight.  The research goals of the flight were successful, unfortunately LCDR Prather drowned when he slipped into the water and his pressure suit filled with seawater. On scene Navy divers were unsuccessful in rescuing him… Read here for a more detailed account…

For this record ascent, President John F. Kennedy presented the balloonists (Victor Prather, posthumously to his wife) the 1961 Harmon Trophy for Aeronauts.

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4 thoughts on “World Record Balloon Flight Set By Navy At 113,739.9 Feet

  1. In August 1960 I designed the biomedical telemetry system that flew on Strato Lab High V, I was in the Naval Research Reserve and we built the system at Navy Medical Research Center at Bethesda Naval Hospita where I was on a”summer” cruisel. I used magnetic amplifiers and WWII walkie-talkie vacuum tubes. After the “Balloon Shot” I was back at the NMRC and the electronic technicians told me that the system worked perfectly. I was unaware of LCDR Prather’s death until I read this article. This occured before Project Mercury put their men in space.

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