Would you believe it if I told you a man could travel to the outer limits of space in a capsule no bigger than a telephone booth propelled by a hot air balloon?

Chances are, you’d think I was one sandwich short of a picnic. Thing is, it happened.

I was never all that interested in the space program until 30-something years ago when the first man to go into space showed up at my mama’s house.

I’d dropped by to see Lois, my sister Barbara’s college suite-mate. When I walked in, I met her husband, David Simons, a tall, straight-backed, white haired man. When someone mentioned that he had been the first human to travel into outer space, I was enthralled and a bit bewildered.

Later, he mailed me his video of the History Channel documentary. I found his book “Manhigh” at the AU library, and when I started reading, I literally couldn’t put it down.

Shortly before the Russians launched Sputnik, years before NASA and John Glenn’s space adventure, a small company in Minnesota built a sealed capsule and a balloon that would lift one man above 100,000 feet for 24 hours. The balloon was 200 feet in diameter and held 3 million cubic feet of helium. It was no satellite, just a one-man gondola hanging from a balloon.

When Project Manhigh was established in 1955 to obtain scientific data, Captain Simons was a young Airforce flight surgeon. The capsule was an incredible piece of engineering — a sealed cabin filled with oxygen, nitrogen and helium that could sustain a pilot for 24 hours.

He reached a peak altitude of 102,400 feet above sea level and spent the day floating above 100,000 feet. The next morning, a line of thunderstorms forced him to stay aloft for more than 32 hours.

Simons’ ascent of more than 19 miles above the Earth set an altitude record in 1957, making him the first human to cross over into outer space. Simons always kept his focus on the biological effects of cosmic radiation, and he sought to downplay his own role in Manhigh, saying, “The messenger is not the message.”

He said his most important finding was that with the proper equipment, a human being could survive at the edge of space. He described his main contribution as “just being there.”

This flight set the stage for the space age. Manhigh II was hailed as a brilliant accomplishment, and Simons appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

In the article, Simons said the sky, high above Earth, was purplish black. Above the haze layer, he saw thin bands of blue etched against the night sky. These thin shells of dust, he wrote, “hovered over the Earth like a succession of halos. The stars did not twinkle.”

But the story of this pioneer of early space exploration, his mission and its contributions to the future space program were largely untold by NASA. It’s a shame that this fascinating and important part of history isn’t well-known.

Mary Belk lives in Auburn and writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News.

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Mary Belk lives in Auburn and writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News.

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