The Hubble Space Telescope has provided incredible images and a wealth of information about stars and galaxies for over 30 years, as well as a complete reimagining of the universe around us. One reason for this has been the fact that Hubble functions completely outside of Earth’s atmosphere, preventing any interference from impacting imagery. Before the Hubble Space Telescope was even a concept, however, images which were once thought to be impossible to capture were taken via telescopes carried by balloons, such as those of Operation Stargazer.
The first high-altitude piloted balloon observation missions were launched in the late-1950s as part of the U.S. Navy’s Strato-Lab program. Between 1958 and 1959, the U.S. Navy launched four separate missions for numerous celestial observations high up in the atmosphere. The height and stability of the balloons allowed scientists to make observations that would be less impacted by the Earth’s atmosphere. The “twinkling” of stars—as perceived by our eyes—is caused by visible light being slightly distorted as it passes through the atmosphere. Although it creates a wonderful effect to the casual viewer, this distortion can cause errors in calculations and scientific observations. The atmosphere also blocks other spectrums of energy, such as ultraviolet radiation, which proves invaluable for certain scientific applications. This interference can be greatly reduced by bringing telescopes high into the atmosphere to conduct measurements.
The Air Force, already well versed in piloted high-altitude balloon flights, elected to launch their own experiments in 1962 to capitalize on the wealth of information that could be gathered within the upper layers of the atmosphere. The Air Force chose Capt. Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., one of their best balloon pilots, to pilot the balloon and its accompanying scientist during the flight. Kittinger had participated with the Air Force Project Excelsior in 1960, and recorded the highest parachute jump in history up to that point, when he exited from a gondola at 102, 800 feet.
Civilian astronomer William C. White accompanied Kittinger in the gondola and was responsible for making the necessary observations while airborne. White had worked for the U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Station in 1960 and assisted with some of the scientific aspects of the Strato-Lab missions. Dr. J. Allen Hynek, science director for Operation Stargazer, invited White to participate in the Air Force efforts. White was responsible for conducting three main experiments at high altitudes to gain a better understanding of how the atmosphere impacts scientific data. One experiment measured the atmospheric impact of turbulence on telescope observations. Turbulence from the atmosphere can cause a loss of focus on ground-based telescopes, and the high-altitude flight allowed this turbulence to be measured. A second experiment measured the variations of brightness in stars, called scintillation, caused by the atmosphere. This scintillation can lead to inaccurate measurements of a star’s brightness when measured through ground-based telescopes. The third experiment measured the impact of water vapor in the different layers of the atmosphere on infrared measurements of different stars and planets.
The 13-foot-high and seven-foot-wide Operation Stargazer gondola was outfitted with numerous tools to allow White to make the needed measurements for his experiments. One of the most important was a 12-1/2-inch reflecting telescope mounted to the top of the gondola and controlled by White on the inside. The telescope was mounted with a “gyroscopic electronic stabilizing gear” built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This gear allowed the telescope to automatically track a specified star and stabilize the telescope regardless of the movements of the balloon or gondola. Operation Stargazer was the first mission to employ such a capability, allowing for more accurate measurements to be made from the upper atmosphere.
On the morning of December 13, 1962, Kittinger and White launched their gondola from Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The balloon rose to a little over 80,000 feet, where it stayed to allow for numerous measurements to be recorded. After hours of observations, the balloon descended, during which more observations were recorded. The total length of the flight from launch to landing was approximately 18-1/2 hours. The flight was a great success, with the stabilized telescope and additional equipment working as designed. The first flight of Operation Stargazer, however, would also be its last. Piloted balloon flights were expensive, and the program lost its funding as other priorities arose.
Although Operation Stargazer marked the end of piloted balloon observations, scientists continued to send unpiloted balloon-launched equipment into the upper atmosphere to gather data. The emergence of the Hubble Space Telescope provided even better measurements and images that those involved in Operation Stargazer could have ever imagined and continues to impact our view of the universe and inspire future generations to continue to look up into the night sky.