World View is excited to start the next chapter of high-altitude ballooning history, drawing upon the experience of predecessors who ushered in the space age. Well before Wernher von Braun came to the U.S. to develop the first rocket booster for the Apollo space program, scientists used high-altitude balloons to research the space environment. These balloons were also used to study the effects of space on the human body and to develop ways to mitigate issues – methods later adopted by NASA for human spaceflight. In addition, high-altitude balloons have been used to study deep space astrophysics, and to make important Earth observations.

The earliest gas-balloon flights date back to the late 18th century when Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert piloted the first gas-filled balloon in France on Dec. 1, 1783, the day that human flight was born. The envelope was filled with hydrogen. Since then, gas ballooning has evolved into high-altitude ballooning, and over the last half century, hundreds of balloon flights provided science with not only invaluable data, but some breathtaking views of our planet. In fact, high-altitude ballooning was used as an analog in the development of human spaceflight. It is a reliable, durable and dependable mode of exploring the edge of space.

History of Ballooning

Below are some of the significant moments in the rich history of high-altitude ballooning:

  • Capt. Orvil Anderson and Albert Stevens

    The first people to report seeing the curvature of the Earth with their own eyes were Capt. Orvil Anderson and Albert Stevens during a balloon ascent to 74,000 feet, where the bending horizon begins to be visible. The flight was in 1935.

  • Dr. John Paul Stapp

    In 1946, Dr. John Paul Stapp discovered how to avoid the bends when atmospheric pressure is reduced. He pre-breathed 100% oxygen, a method used by NASA Astronauts today. Dr. Stapp used an open gondola under a helium balloon to understand the effects of the bends and how to mitigate them.

    Photo Credit:  Life Magazine 1959, Photographer: Francis Miller

  • David Simons

    The first person to reach 100,000 feet in a capsule under a helium balloon was David Simons on August 19, 1957, when he rose to 101,500 feet. This was to study the effects of the space environment on the human body. This flight demonstrated that pilots could survive in the space environment, both physically and emotionally. His success played a significant role in John F. Kennedy’s ultimate decision to go to the moon.

    Winzen Research developed the early capsules in the 1950s, along with early life support systems for providing oxygen, scrubbing carbon dioxide and maintaining tolerable temperature conditions inside the capsule. Otto Winzen was the visionary behind the company and the balloon technology we use today. His wife, Vera, was responsible for figuring out how to manufacture them reliably.

    Photo Credit:  David G. Simons prior to the second Manhigh flight in August 1957. USAF

  • Project Strato-Lab

    Project Strato-Lab was born in 1954 with the idea to create a crewed balloon-borne laboratory for atmospheric and biomedical research.

    The first flight with two people was in 1956 to 76,000 feet, and the first one to break 100,000 feet was Strato-Lab V in 1961, when Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather went to 113,740 feet.

    In 1961, the National Science Foundation founded what is now called the Columbia Scientific Ballooning Facility (CSBF) to routinely fly international science payloads at the edge of space. CSBF now operates under the auspices of NASA.

  • The Dawn of Commercial Ballooning

    From the 1970’s to the the 1990’s, World View Advisor Julian Nott designed and built a series of cabins for both helium and hot air balloons, introducing numerous innovations and setting many world records, totaling 79 over the course of his career. He was the first private individual to build pressure cabins, proving that routine high-altitude ballooning could be achieved by commercial organizations like World View.

    One of his cabins is permanently displayed in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center.

  • Breitling Orbiter 3 Balloon

    On March 20, 1999, the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon, piloted by Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard, became the first balloon to fly nonstop around the world. The trip took just under 20 days.

  • StratEx - Alan Eustace

    On October 24th, 2014, with the help of Paragon Space Development Corporation, Alan Eustace traveled 136,000+/- feet into the stratosphere inside a self-contained space suit suspended beneath a high-altitude balloon, ultimately breaking three world records and making significant advancements in ballooning, spacesuit, life support systems, and parachute technology.

    Alan rose further above the surface of the earth than any human not aided by a rocket. After hundreds of years of history, balloons still have a preeminent role in human exploration; a storied history that World View will carry and influence further into the future.

Fun Fact

The large number of UFO sightings in the 1950s is thought to be due in part to high-altitude balloons, which looked like flying disks in the sky when the ground was in darkness and the round balloons were lit by the sun.

Where the atmosphere merged with the colorless blackness of space, the sky was so heavily saturated with this blue-purple color that it was inescapable, yet its intensity was so low that it was hard to comprehend…
David Simons on viewing the Earth from nearspace, from the book: The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space, by Craig Ryan