Before man walked on the moon, space exploration pioneered in Rapid City
RAPID CITY, S.D. — You might think the Black Hills are a long way removed from NASA and the Space Race. Despite being more than 1,600 miles from Cape Canaveral and more than 1,000 miles from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Rapid City has a long history with America’s Space Program.
Just 13 miles southwest of Rapid City sits the site of humans’ first ascent into space.
“The National Geographic Society wanted to explore the upper limits of our atmosphere,” said Corey Christianson, AEC coordinator at the Journey Museum.
After searching the United States for the perfect, natural basin, the Stratobowl became home to history. Why the bowl? Crews needed an area large enough to house the balloon and all the equipment. Plus, it was easier to get the massive balloon off the ground in an area without cross winds. “The lower the bowl was into the ground, the better,” said Christianson.
In 1934, the first flight. The balloon, filled with hydrogen. The gondola, filled with instruments and manned by Air Corps Capt. Albert Stevens, Capt. Orvil Anderson, and Major William Keppner.
“The ’34 flight ended in disaster,” said Christianson.
A single spark caused the balloon to explode 5,000 feet above the ground. Stevens and Anderson were both able to get out and parachute to safety. It took a little longer for Keppner.
“He actually only got out about 500 feet before the balloon crashed into the ground,” said Christianson.
Explorer I crashed into a Nebraska corn field, much of the equipment barely salvageable.
That was it for Keppner’s space days but Anderson and Stevens looked ahead to the next flight.
Unlike the first flight where the men dawned only parachutes, the two men were equipped with sturdier safety gear — high school football helmets from Rapid City High School. Another switch, the choice to use helium instead of hydrogen.
On November 11, 1935, they flew Explorer II up to 72,395 feet, well into the Stratosphere. They were the first humans to see the curvature of the Earth, over 13 miles off the ground.
“We learned so much about our atmosphere that we hadn’t known before,” said Christianson.
Instruments in the gondola were able to measure ozone levels, cosmic rays, air density and much more. Short term research aided in World War II aeronautics by learning how upper air affects the human body. Long term research led to mankind continuing to push the bounds of space.
After the historic flight, the crew received medals from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The pioneers in space flight also met a pioneer in aviation, Amelia Earhart.
The record set by Anderson and Stevens held for nearly two decades before the space race heated up.
“It felt like every other week a record was being broken and that all culminated with the Apollo 11 landing on the moon,” said Christianson.
By the later 1950s, the Navy was running balloon tests in the Stratobowl before leaving it to become the tourist destination it is today. While space exploration technology is still being researched locally, the connection to space has shifted from balloon to rockets. The Stratobowl, while not big enough to house further rocket research, will continue to house a big piece of history.
“The bowl, in addition to its historic interest is scenically delightful,” reads an original historic sign that now resides in the Journey Museum.
You can learn more about the Stratobowl and its history at both the Journey Museum and at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.