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.
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.