In 1803 the first scientific balloon flight—to make measurements of electricity in the air—reached an altitude of 7,400 m (24,300 ft). A year later French chemist and physicist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac made measurements of the composition of the air by using a balloon. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, the balloon was the only vehicle available for atmospheric measurements. Scientists risked their lives flying to higher altitudes to conduct their experiments. In 1931 the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard ascended into the stratosphere in a spherical, airtight, metal cabin suspended from a specially constructed hydrogen-filled balloon of 14,000 cu m (494,400 cu ft) capacity, reaching an altitude of 15,797 m (51,793 ft). The following year he reached 16,940 m (55,577 ft).
On May 27, 1931, Swiss explorer Auguste Piccard captured the world’s attention by ascending into the earth’s stratosphere in a tiny airtight gondola lifted by a huge balloon. In this 1933 National Geographic article, Piccard gives a firsthand account of his harrowing journey nearly 16 km (10 mi) above the surface of the earth. During his second voyage in 1932, Piccard and his assistant gathered valuable information about cosmic rays, extremely energetic subatomic particles that travel through space at nearly the speed of light.
In 1935 two U.S. Army captains, Orvil Anderson and Albert William Stevens, ascended to 22,080 m (72,440 ft). The primary purpose of this flight was to determine how the makeup of the atmosphere changed with altitude by obtaining air samples in the stratosphere. In 1957 Major David Simons, a U.S. Air Force surgeon, ascended to about 31,110 m (about 102,000 ft), remaining in the air 32 hours. Simons’s flight was designed to study the physiological reactions of humans at high altitudes. In 1960 Captain Joseph Kittinger of the U.S. Air Force bailed out of a polyethylene plastic balloon at 31,354 m (102,867 ft), setting a new altitude record for balloon flight and a new record for parachute descent. In 1961 Malcolm Ross, a U.S. Navy commander, and Victor Prather set an altitude record of 34,679 m (113,776 ft).
In the early years of the United States space program, the United States Air Force (USAF) conducted a variety of pioneering tests to investigate the effects of high-altitude flight on the human body. In August 1960, less than a year before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) sent the first human into space, USAF Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., tested a new parachute design by jumping from a helium balloon at 31,354 m (102,867 ft). In a 1960 National Geographic article, Kittinger describes the jump and the associated support and research efforts