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As children, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier had often marvelled at a curious phenomenon outside their father's factory in southern France. He was a prosperous paper manufacturer, and they had become fascinated by the occasional sight of paper bags rising in updrafts from the factory's chimney. This led them to experiment over many years with other crude vehicles made of silk and linen, and their innovative work would eventually be recognised as the true genesis of ballooning [1].

First animal passengers

On 19 September 1783, a crowd of nearly 130,000 people had gathered around the magnificent Great Court outside the royal palace in Versailles, France. Surrounded by exquisitely kept, scented gardens, their main interest was focused on less floral matters. They had travelled to the palace to witness the public demonstration (or possible humiliation) of a rather extraordinary vehicle and its two creators. Among the curious onlookers that day were King Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette, who would lose their heads to the guillotine 10 years later.

The mood that autumn day was one of excitement, and the prevailing weather conditions were good. If all went well, and the winds remained calm, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and his 5-year-younger brother Jacques-Etienne hoped to launch their second full-size hot-air balloon into the skies on its maiden voyage. It was a 40-foot diameter marvel they had christened Le Martial.

Standing an imposing 60 feet tall, the elegantly painted balloon was constructed of linen and paper. For this flight a large wicker cage had been suspended beneath the balloon, within which the brothers had placed a cockerel, a duck and a sheep. These three animals were unknowingly destined to become the first hot-air balloon passengers in history.

Le Martial had no transportable heat source of its own, so when ascent time came the gaping hole at the foot of the balloon was suspended over a straw fire smouldering in a large cauldron. The great bag slowly became engorged with hot gases, expanding and rising until it was straining against the guy ropes. Then, to the applause of the crowd, it was unleashed and rose majestically into the sky, eventually reaching an altitude of around 1,500 feet.

The balloon would remain airborne for 8 minutes before it descended to a safe landing over a mile away, on the fringes of the Forest of Vaucresson. The cockerel, duck and sheep had become the first living creatures ever to survive a ride into the skies aboard a man-made ascent vehicle. The only known casualty was the cockerel, which was nursing a broken wing after being kicked by the agitated sheep.

On fire, but safe

Two months later, an adventurous science teacher named Francois Pilatre de Rozier clambered into the open basket of another Montgolfier balloon, accompanied by the Marquis d'Arlandes, Francois Laurent. This time a portable brazier had been installed below the mouth of the balloon, burning a pungent but effective combination of damp straw, rag and rotting meat that heated and rarefied the air inside the balloon.

Once the guy ropes had been released, the pear-shaped vessel rose to nearly 3,000 feet, drifting at will for the next 22 minutes in the light northwesterly winds. Although contained, flames from the brazier began to lick at the canopy's fabric, which soon caught fire. The intrepid balloonists quickly extinguished the flames with wet sponges and landed safely 6 miles away. They had become the first humans ever to fly in an untethered, lighter-than-air vehicle.

For many decades, balloon flights would remain little more than a novelty, the challenging stuff of sporting achievements and a versatile medium for the establishment of minor records. They also provided amusement for wealthy thrill-seekers.

It wasn't until the very early 1800s that the balloon's potential for scientific observation and atmospheric study was more fully realised. Manned ascents, now as high as 22,900 feet, would be carried out using increasingly sophisticated hot-air balloons, allowing researchers to determine the atmosphere's height, composition and characteristics. As higher altitudes were attained, however, the peculiar hazards of atmospheric exploration would claim many pioneering balloonists, who knew precious little about the insidious effects of hypothermia and oxygen starvation (hypoxia). Some would even perish from high-altitude pulmonary oedema.

The hazards of high-altitude flight

In 1862, two British "aeronauts" undertook a daring series of balloon flights aimed at studying the upper atmosphere, flying as high as possible, but without a breathable oxygen supply. On their first attempt, Sir James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell reached 26,177 feet. Two months later, dressed in nothing more protective than heavy street clothes, they tried again in a balloon called Mars. This time they reached nearly 30,000 feet, equivalent to the summit of Mount Everest, but the attempt nearly cost them their lives.

Things had gone well at first. Glaisher, a meteorologist by profession, was busy recording measurements as they ascended. At progressively higher altitudes he would extract one of several pigeons from a cage and fling it overboard in order to record the bird's reaction. He noticed that the higher the balloon ascended, the more sluggish the birds became when released. In fact many simply fell listlessly until they were lost to sight. Curiously enough, this did not seem to alarm the two men.

Things would change as the balloon reached the 5-mile mark. Glaisher now became mildly hypoxic and started to hallucinate. He would later recall the dramatic events in his book, Travels in the Air. "Up to this time I had experienced no particular inconvenience," he wrote. "When at the height of 26,000 feet I could not see the fine column of the mercury in the tube; then the fine divisions on the scale of the instrument became invisible. At that time I asked Mr. Coxwell to help me read the instruments, as I experienced a difficulty in seeing them'' [2].

Glaisher then found that he had become powerless, and could not even raise his arms off the table. "I tried to shake myself, and succeeded, but I seemed to have no limbs. In looking at the barometer my head fell over my left shoulder ... Getting my head upright for an instant only, it fell on my right shoulder; then I fell backwards, my back resting against the side of the car and my head on its edge'' [2].

Then Coxwell, a highly-experienced balloonist, noticed that the rotary movement of the balloon had caused a gas valve line to become tangled in the rigging. It had to be freed or they could not descend. They were now at 28,000 feet, and Glaisher was suffering from oxygen deprivation, with symptoms similar to acute intoxication. He was only vaguely aware of their peril and was unable to help. In a bold but life-saving move, Coxwell climbed onto one side of the open basket and grasped a sturdy metal ring around the base of the balloon. Amazingly, neither man had thought to wear gloves, and even though Coxwell was within reach of the valve line his bare hands had become stuck on the freezing metal ring. In desperation, chilled to the core and beginning to vomit, he grasped the cord in his teeth. Eventually it tore free, together with one of his teeth, and air began to spill from the balloon.

Meanwhile, Glaisher had begun convulsing. "I dimly saw Mr. Coxwell, and endeavoured to speak, but could not. In an instant intense darkness overcame me, so that the optic nerve lost power suddenly, but I was still conscious, with as active a brain as at the present moment whilst writing this. I thought I had been seized with asphyxia, and believed I should experience nothing more, as death would come unless we speedily descended: other thoughts were entering my mind when I suddenly became unconscious as on going to sleep" [2].

Slowly the balloon descended, and despite a hard landing both men would survive their ordeal.

A fatal error

Other balloonists were less fortunate. On 15 April 1875, French journalist Joseph Croce-Spinelli, naval officer Henri Sivel and a civilian named Gaston Tissandier flew their balloon Zenith to 28,000 feet. They were carrying with them a primitive oxygen apparatus manufactured from three small balloons filled with a mixture of air and oxygen, and fitted with India-rubber hose pipes. Unfortunately Croce-Spinelli and Sivel fainted with the pain and extreme cold, leaving a badly-confused Tissandier to initiate the descent by pulling a valve rope before he also fainted. He somehow survived, but the other two men died before landing. Sadly, none of them had used what little oxygen they carried [3].

Earlier, during the American Civil War, hot-air balloons had provided useful aerial surveillance of enemy positions. They would also be used extensively during the First World War, for observation purposes and as high-flying bombing platforms.

In November 1927, Captain Hawthorne Gray of the U.S. Army Air Service ventured into the stratosphere for a record third time, once again keeping a meticulous log of his reactions to high-altitude flight as he ascended. Unfortunately, he ran out of oxygen on his descent and died before the huge balloon touched down. A barograph, recovered along with Gray's body 2 days later, showed that the balloon had reached a peak altitude of 42,470 feet.

It would soon be determined that - once humans ascended above 30,000 feet -atmospheric pressure had correspondingly dropped to a point where they needed to breathe pure oxygen under pressure to survive, otherwise a loss of consciousness would result in less than a minute. Furthermore, any ascent above 40,000 feet would require the use of a pressure suit or a pressurised cabin. Captain Gray's ill-fated high-altitude flight would be the last conducted in an open basket until 1955, when the development of pressure suits became an imperative.

Research balloons and rockets

As aircraft became involved in high-altitude flights for research purposes, balloons once again became the poor flight cousins of the skies. But that would not last long. With military jet aircraft flying ever faster and higher, and eager test pilots scything relentless trails into the very thresholds of space, the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) -later the U.S. Air Force (USAF) - became an active participant in biodynamics and space biology research, principally carried out at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

While rockets would one day carry animals aloft from nearby White Sands Proving Ground, military high-altitude balloons would likewise contribute to outstanding accomplishments in two broad fields of space biology research - cosmic radiation and controlled artificial environments. For many years, physicists and flight physiologists had been especially concerned about the effect of heavy nuclei on the human body in the upper atmosphere and were keen to test their theories.

This would eventually lead to the inclusion of many living specimens on high-altitude balloon and rocket flights. Rats, cats, dogs, mice, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, goldfish, frogs, chickens and monkeys - all would participate in high-altitude balloon flights that benefited researchers in the development of protective pressure suits and breathing apparatus, and help scientists investigating potentially detrimental effects of cosmic rays on the living tissues of both human and animal subjects.

These animals would innocently assess many of the dangers that lurk beyond our protective atmosphere and prove that humans, given proper life-support systems and protection, can function quite successfully on high-altitude missions.

Conducting experiments with cosmic radiation

Just as the Montgolfiers had sent three animal "guinea pigs" aloft in 1783 to see if it could be done, so scientists began including living organisms on balloon flights to test their theories. Fruit flies, seeds, fungi and small animals became payloads in scientific experiments aimed at determining whether their exposure to high-altitude cosmic radiation, or other unknown phenomena, might impact significantly on a subject's short- and long-term health, behaviour, growth, or reproduction.

As aerospace writer Lloyd Mallan once noted of prevailing thoughts on such research, specifically mentioning the year 1949, "it was a subject reserved for the lunatic fringe of science and the lurid fiction fan.'' He added, however, that many eminent specialists in aviation medicine, particularly those from Germany, England and the United States, had been giving the subject serious thought. "Pioneering experiments in aviation medicine had stimulated an awareness of the practicality of exploring the reactions of man's body to the conditions of space'' [4].

The USAF had certainly become interested in space biology research, particularly that related to sub-gravity and cosmic radiation. The first, preliminary balloon flight undertaken on behalf of the Air Force's Missile Development Center took place from Holloman AFB on 8 September 1950, conducted by the Aeromedical Field Laboratory (AMFL). An indeterminate number of white mice (recorded as "14 or 16'') were

Schleich Chien

A variety of animals, such as this St. Bernard, were used in (Photo: USAF)

tests of protective pressure suits.

hoisted to 47,000 feet, but their Albert capsule - coincidentally the same programme name as the one used for their primate rocket launches in New Mexico - sustained a leak and depressurised. Recovery took place 7 hours after lift-off, by which time all of the mice were dead [5].

The next AMFL balloon flight took place 20 days later. On this occasion only eight mice were carried in the Albert capsule. The balloon reached 97,000 feet and was successfully recovered after a flight of 3 hours and 40 minutes. The eight mice had survived their ascent, becoming the first animals to reach that height in a balloon.

The third flight on 18 January 1951 did not end successfully. The balloon burst at 45,000 feet and the mice on board perished on impact with the ground. Next, the AMFL instituted a series of 39 numbered flights, during which a variety of study animals, small and large, would be exposed to heavy primary cosmic rays. This series of biological balloon flights would last through to December 1953.

The first of these flights, numbered AMFL 2, was launched on 23 August 1951, but it ended in a balloon failure during ascent at 59,000 feet, and the hamsters on board did not survive.

Results of other flights varied. Balloon or equipment failures were the norm, resulting in the loss or death of biological specimens, ranging from fruit flies, black mice, white mice and hamsters through to a number of cats and dogs. On subsequent histological examinations of surviving animals, no evidence of tissue damage was found. A number of albino mice were flown to determine if cosmic radiation might cause cataracts to develop on the rodents' super-sensitive eyes. No evidence of this resulted.

The return of David Simons

Slowly, painstakingly, knowledge was being accrued, and surviving specimens provided valuable data on the effects of cosmic-ray penetration, life-support systems and capsule construction. Several helmet variations were also monitored for cosmic-ray particle hits [5]. In the latter part of 1953, USAF Flight Surgeon Major David Simons returned from a 30-month assignment to Korea, ready to return to the world of high-altitude research. He was reassigned to Wright Field in Ohio, from where he would transition to Holloman AFB in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

By January 1953, the cosmic-ray programme had become a function of the USAF Missile Development Center at Holloman, which would ensure it received better support than when it was just one of numerous programme activities being carried out at Wright Field. At Holloman, Simons recalled, he would serve as chief of the Space Biology Laboratory, exploring problems associated with cosmic radiation exposure to animals at high altitudes, using balloons.

Dr. Herman Schaeffer, a physicist at Pensacola in the Navy, had done a number of calculations in terms of exposure to cosmic rays in space that would indicate that there were very significant biological hazards. The concern was heavy atomic nuclei, like carbon and nitrogen, impacting tissues at speeds approaching that of light. There was enough question about this that somebody had to do some experiments to find out whether it was that bad, not that bad, or worse.

Exposing animals to these particles at high altitudes was the only way known to do it. There were no accelerators that could accelerate atoms of that size. The cosmic rays are deflected by the magnetic field that produces the Van Allen belts at the equator [6].

The first flight for which Simons became a principal investigator was AMFL flight 39, achieving 88,000 feet on 16 December 1953. The biological payload carried aloft was little more than skin excised from 10 mice, and some barley seeds. On the subsequent flight, however (AMFL 41), two dogs were lofted to 60,000 feet. Both animals would perish shortly before recovery due to overheating in their containers, which lacked cooling systems.

The dogs were part of an experiment to develop prototype containers specifically designed to carry animals weighing up to 20 pounds to altitudes between 80,000 and 100,000 feet and "to maintain internal conditions at a level to permit flight durations of 36 hours" [7]. Sponsored by the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), the New York University's College of Engineering Research Division had developed and manufactured the container in collaboration with the Aeromedical Laboratory and the Wright Air Development Center. Prior to the first canine flight, chamber and ground tests had verified the container's integrity, but the lack of any cooling system was a lamentable oversight.

Problems continue

AMFL flights 43 and 44 fared little better. On 12 March 1954, another two dogs lifted off from Holloman on flight 43 and flew to 75,000 feet. This time a cooling system had been incorporated. Unfortunately, the animals perished in their capsule after a tracking aircraft lost contact during the descent phase, delaying its recovery. Three months later, on 24 June, a number of mice were on board when a balloon was destroyed by heavy winds during the launch phase [7].

While biological research balloon flights in the early 1950s gave no evidence of radiation damage in the mice, hamsters, fruit flies, cats and dogs, scientists had begun to realise that the flights were being conducted too far south to obtain a significant exposure to cosmic rays. This led to them undertaking many more northerly flights.

The next AMFL flight (45) was launched from Fleming Field in Minnesota, carrying some mice, Neurospora and cats to 79,000 feet. The flight summary states that "all biological specimens were recovered in good condition'' [5].

Philippine macaques (Macaca fascicularis) would take to the skies on the following flights. AMFL 46 was an ambitious mission, the first of eight to be launched from Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. It was carrying "dry corn and barley seeds; 3 monkeys; 11 white mice; 31 black mice; radish seeds; Neurospora; 1 rat; 6 pieces of human skin; 19 fertilized chicken eggs.'' The balloon attained a height of 96,750 feet, and the later flight summary simply records that "most animals survived the flight satisfactorily'' [5].

The next test took place 3 days later carrying a similar biological payload, which included the same pair of macaque monkeys. The flight peaked at 94,300 feet, but on this occasion the results summary recorded that "most animals did not survive the flight" [5]. AMFL 48 met with even less success. The balloon failed at around 50,000 feet and the biological capsule free-fell to the ground: "61 white mice; 42 black mice; radish seeds; Neurospora; 3 rats; 8 fertilized chicken eggs" [5] were all lost.

A rabbit was one of numerous biological passengers carried on AMFL 49 on 25 July 1954, but all of the animals succumbed following a capsule depressurisation.

Monkeys on instalment plans

In their report for the April 1956 edition of the Journal of Aviation Medicine, titled "The 1954 Aeromedical Field Laboratory Balloon Flights, Physiological and Radiobiological Aspects" [8], co-authors David Simons and Charles Steinmetz state that one successful innovation they employed was an "instalment plan" for lengthening the exposure of specimens to cosmic rays. This meant sending the same organisms on consecutive flights. In this way a batch of radish seeds was exposed on several

In preparing for AMFL flight 56, containers of mice are secured in place for their ascent on 3 February 1955. In a touch of serendipity, their containers resembled wedges of cheese. The carriage balloon reached 40,000 feet but unhappily the mouse capsule was lost and never recovered. (Photo: USAF)

consecutive flights for a total of 251 hours above 82,000 feet, while some animal subjects were exposed for more than 74 hours at the same altitude.

In observance of this "instalment plan", each of the two following flights carried the same pair of monkeys in their respective capsules, with both balloons flying to around 97,000 feet. In both cases all specimens were said to have been "recovered satisfactorily" [8].

According to a 1956 report prepared by Harry Harlow, Allan Schrier and David Simons [9], the purpose of this particular investigation was to determine the effects of primary cosmic radiation on the behaviour of primates. In all, four macaque monkeys were given a series of behavioural tests before and after two of the subjects made successive flights to altitudes above 90,000 feet for a cumulative total of 62 hours. Preliminary post-flight examinations conducted on the two flown and two control monkeys included "re-tests of discontinuous response pursuit and colour-discrimination performance" [9]. All four animals underwent further examination on oddity and delayed-response problems, and their appetite for peanuts and raisins. These tests were repeated some 4 months after the high-altitude flights.

The weight, general behaviour and neurological conditions of the flown animals were found to be quite normal. Post-flight test performances showed continued improvement, equalling or bettering those of the unflown control animals. It was tentatively concluded that prolonged exposure to primary cosmic radiation at high altitudes did not produce any general behavioural loss in the animals [9].

Further studies of the possible biological effects of day-long exposure to primary cosmic radiation were conducted on 85 mice carried aboard AMFL 67, launched from International Falls, Minnesota. Although the specimen payload was only planned to fly above 80,000 feet, the balloon ultimately reached closer to 109,000 feet, remaining there for nearly 23 hours. For comparative purposes, the flown and some identical ground-based control mice would be allowed to live out their lives while undergoing periodic scrutiny and testing. "Taking into consideration the minor differences exhibited by the experimental and control animals in longevity, incidence of neoplasms, and in reproductivity and aging," the later report concluded, "there was no definite evidence that a day's exposure to light- and medium-weight primary cosmic particles in the stratosphere had any adverse long-term effect'' [10].

Summarising the flights

In his book Biomedical Aspects of Space Flight, James Henry later stated that the effect of radiation depended on the particular group of cells involved in the track of the impinging radiation:

For instance, if a hair is struck at the root - in the follicle where a few cells determine the growth and colour of the whole hair - then it is possible to obtain direct evidence of cosmic ray hits. Indeed, black mice exposed to cosmic rays have shown white hairs. But the tremendous duplication of the body's cells makes serious damage as a result of these cosmic "needle pricks'' unlikely [11].

These two black mice were flown in research balloons for the same length of time at the same altitude, but the mouse on the left received exposure to the more intense cosmic radiation found in northern latitudes. The mouse on the right flew much farther south and shows no sign of the same grey speckling. (Photo: Brown University)

These two black mice were flown in research balloons for the same length of time at the same altitude, but the mouse on the left received exposure to the more intense cosmic radiation found in northern latitudes. The mouse on the right flew much farther south and shows no sign of the same grey speckling. (Photo: Brown University)

In summarising the animal test flights on balloons, David Simons said there was relief expressed at many of the conclusions.

Over a period offour or five years, we gradually learned how to build life support systems that would maintain 200 mouse units' worth of animals in a capsule for thirty-six hours at altitudes up around 130,000 feet. We used "mouse units'' because sometimes we flew guinea pigs, sometimes we flew rats; lots of times, of course, mice, and even occasionally monkeys. And, life support systems are quite critical in terms of being sure you have provided enough oxygen and carbon dioxide absorbing capability and temperature control to cover the load that you're carrying. I remember that a guinea pig was two mouse units, a monkey nearly seven mouse units. This way, we could add it up and know we had not exceeded our 200-mouse units for the capsule and that it would do well. After about four or five years of this, we'd done enough experiments that it was clear there could be some effects detectable, but they were certainly not as bad as was first prognosticated, and very clearly not worse than was theoretically envisioned.

So, the problem looked like it was one of those things you ought to know about and not forget, but wasn't really a major concern. Except for unusual, and violent, solar flares, it would not be a problem in near space for things like moon shots. Now, if you're going to go to Mars and beyond, with transit times of two years or so and round trip times offour years or more, it involves a much different order ofexposure, which may require some reconsideration [6].

Project Man High is born

With animal experiments on high-altitude balloons coming to an end, Simons was approached by his chief at the Aeromedical Laboratory, Lt. Colonel John Paul Stapp, who wanted to know if he felt that the time was right to do balloon flights with manned pressurised gondolas suspended beneath them. This would allow advanced studies into the effects of cosmic rays and the determination of the physical and psychological capabilities of human subjects during extended flights into near-space conditions. "I hadn't thought much about it, but it's true," Simons later recalled saying to Stapp. "Our data at this point looked like it shouldn't be dangerous'' [6]. Stapp then asked if he would be willing to undertake such a mission.

"Well, basically, with what I know, I surely have no compunctions," Simons told his chief. "I think that it would be very safe from a radiation point of view and it could very well give us a lot of information that we can't get from animals. You can make observations that the animals can't tell you about'' [6].

One of the potential effects a human passenger might observe would be the penetration of the retina by a heavy-particle cosmic ray. Simons reasoned that a person at high altitude should be able to experience a flash of light behind the eyelids and, unlike an animal, report on the phenomenon. He agreed to become a human "guinea pig'' on an upcoming flight, but he had lingering concerns. Although most of the animal research flights on balloons had indicated that the effects of cosmic radiation on tissue were negligible, Simons knew that a pioneer cosmic-ray researcher in Europe had been reaching different conclusions.

Dr. Jakob A.G. Eugster of Berne, Switzerland, had sent batches of oat seeds aloft in our capsules and after planting the oats he reported major mutations through three generations.

Even more exotic and somewhat alarming, Eugster excised and dried samples of his own skin and sent them to us to fly in the upper atmosphere. The dried skin was keyed to photographic plates which mapped the exact points on the specimens that were penetrated by cosmic particles. When we returned the exposed skin samples, Eugster re-implanted them on his body. Later, the skin developed dark granules suggesting cancerous growth at the points penetrated by cosmic particles [12].

This effect had not been noticed in returning live animals, and Simons was keen to prove that Eugster's dried skin had reacted differently from his own live skin. "But I had to acknowledge that my eagerness might earn me a batch of minute skin cancers instead of confirmation of my own theory,'' he added [12].

They were going to call it Project Daedalus, but when the name was suggested to their higher-ups in the Air Force they were told that the service already had a highly-classified programme by that name in operation. Simons therefore gave their project a simple but descriptive name - Man High.

At first, Simons was going to be the first Man High pilot, but it was wisely decided that he should serve as reserve pilot for the initial test flight, leaving him free to conduct the second, full-scale research flight. Instead, the experienced test pilot

The Man High II balloon carrying Dr. David Simons on his high-altitude flight ascends into the sky from a mine pit on 19 August 1957. The balloon would reach a record 102,000 feet. (Photo: USAF)

Captain Joe Kittinger was given the first flight, and was carried to 95,000 feet on 2 June 1957.

Two months later, on 19 August, Simons would ascend to 102,000 feet - 19 miles -in his sealed Man High II gondola, leaving around 99% of the Earth's atmosphere behind him. He remained at that altitude for 32 hours.

A third and final Man High flight would take place on 8 October the following year, this time with Lieutenant Clifton McClure aboard.

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  • yemane
    Why does on high altitude balooning the scientist uses mice or rat on sending into the stratosphere?
    2 years ago

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