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American Experience: Space Men set to air on PBS

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Image Credit: PBS

When one thinks of forging a new path forward into the frontier of space, one envisions powerful boosters guzzling through rocket fuel and thundering aloft on pillars of flame. While the first days of the Space Age were indeed powered into the black by modified ballistic missiles, some space pioneers ventured forward using far lighter vehicles on far more extreme missions. Enter Project Excelsior.

Major David G. Simon, who set a new altitude record of 102,000 feet in a 32-hour balloon flight, near the peak of his climb to heights never before reached by a balloon. Major Simons, an Air Force biologist, photographed himself by timing the flash of strobe light set in the balloon. August 1957. Photo Credit: National Museum of the United States Air Force

Major David G. Simon, who set a new altitude record of 102,000 feet in a 32-hour balloon flight, near the peak of his climb to heights never before reached by a balloon. Major Simons, an Air Force biologist, photographed himself by timing the flash of strobe light set in the balloon, August 1957. Photo Credit: National Museum of the United States Air Force

In the late 1950s, NASA announced the seven astronauts who would be the first to fly into space for the nation’s nascent manned (and they were all men at that time) space program. Whereas names like Alan B. Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton would enter the public’s consciousness, there was another set of names that have been all but forgotten to history.

Until now.

PBS is scheduled to air an episode of America Experience that will highlight the far less-publicized U.S. Air Force Project Excelsior. During this initiative, flights to the very edge of Earth’s atmosphere, the cusp of space, were conducted via balloon.

Lacking the budget of NASA’s Project Mercury, the program sent Captain Joseph Kittinger 100,000 feet above Earth. He then did the unthinkable – and stepped out into the void. He did this not once but three times during the lifespan of the project.

Space Men is written and directed by Amanda Pollak, and produced by Pollak along with Stephen Ives and executive producer Mark Samels. Space Men is set to premiere on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, 9:00-10:00 p.m. EST on PBS (check local listings).

“These brave men were doing the cutting-edge work that would lead to the space program,” Samels said. “But unlike the space program that was to follow, the financing for these balloonists was minuscule. They had to cobble together equipment and a lot of it was homemade. These explorers – who put themselves in harm’s way as part of these experiments – were just filled with ingenuity and dedication and a tremendous amount of courage. And yet they were completely overshadowed by the astronauts who came right after them. Space Men is a way of bringing attention to these lesser-known heroes and giving them their rightful place in American history.”

Video courtesy of American Experience

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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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