The Stratobowl- America’s First Steps into Space

The photo of a chinese balloon over Billings took my memories back to the beginnings of the US Space Program in South Dakota. 

That first balloon launch preceded the US Air Force – The Beauty and History of South Dakota’s Stratobowl tells the story of the Army Air Corps and the National Geographic Society teaming their efforts for our nation’s first space travel – in the really old days when rockets were too new to use. 

“The box canyon was an ideal place for a launch, since the natural walls could allow the balloon to be shielded from wind until it was fully inflated. But the natural assets were no guarantee of success. The first mission ended in near-disaster on July 28, 1934, when the hydrogen balloon carrying Stevens and two other crew members made it to 63,000 feet before a tear in the balloon sent the crew plummeting to the ground. All three were able to bail out safely – and later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross – before the remaining hydrogen burst into flame. Albert was undeterred. 

On November 11, 1935, Captains Stevens and Orvil Anderson ascended from the canyon in a helium balloon known as Explorer II. The pair reached a new record of 72,395 feet — a record that would last for 20 years — and snapped the very first picture to show the curvature of the Earth. 

Later balloon launches used a strip-mined pit in Minnesota to provide the windbreak that would shelter balloons during inflation – but the stratobowl was the first.  I never felt flush enough to take the family for a one hour hot air balloon ride launched from the stratobowl – but if you check the link above, you’ll see that those trips are available. 

The wiki article tells more:

“In 1934 the NGS and Air Corps co-sponsored the Explorer, a mannedhigh-altitude balloon capable of stratospheric flight. After the crash of the Soviet Osoaviakhim-1 that nevertheless set an altitude record of 72,178 feet (22,000 m), the sponsors redefined their primary objectives from record-setting to scientific research and tests of new navigation instruments.[1] Air Corps Capt. Albert William Stevens, Capt. Orvil Arson Anderson and Maj. William E. Kepner were selected to fly the Explorer.[1] Kepner and Anderson, experienced balloonists, were in charge of locating a suitable launch site. According to Kepner, an ideal site would be a crater or canyon, a clear grassy valley encircled with rocky ridges high enough to shield the tall balloon from any wind.[2] Ideally, the launch site it would have a high-voltage electric line, road and rail access, “and a trout stream”.[3] Kepner and Anderson eventually located their dream canyon near Rapid City, South Dakota. City officials, fascinated by the expected publicity campaign, agreed to build a road and electric line.[3]

The Rapid City hydro-electric plant that provided electricity to the Stratodome is still producing electricity – Doug MacDonald bought it and moved it up to the MacDonald Ranch just a little across the border north of Eureka. 

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