WHEN JEFF BEZOS, founder of Amazon, and three others blasted into space Tuesday morning aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket from the west Texas desert, the world watched.
But when Air Force Major David Simons lifted toward the edges of space in a capsule the size of a telephone booth on August 19, 1957, from a Minnesota iron ore pit, far fewer watched. Yet, the journey of MAN HIGH II to an altitude of 19 miles (a new record) was equally, if not more, significant.
I learned about this unknown, at least to me and I expect many others, event last week while vacationing in the central Minnesota Brainerd lakes area. A replica capsule and exhibit at the Soo Line Depot Museum in Crosby tell the story of this amazing flight toward space. The museum defines PROJECT MAN HIGH as the “first manned space flight.” Simons, 35, an astronaut, scientist and medical doctor, proved man could survive just on the edge of space, for at least 32 hours.
This 1957 mission was kept intentionally secretive given the time period. Months later the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. The space race was on.
That Minnesota played an important role in the U.S. efforts to win that race is significant. And, of all places, this happened in an iron mine pit outside a small mining community on the Cuyuna Range. A 200-foot wide paper-thin balloon holding 3 million cubic feet of helium lifted the capsule skyward from the base of the Portsmouth iron mine pit. Eventually the spaceship landed in a flax field near the North Dakota/South Dakota border. And, as our tour guide Tim told me, Simons was met by a rancher and a young boy on horseback. That boy showed more interested in an arriving helicopter than the capsule, so the story goes.
The story of MAN HIGH II truly impresses me, especially after seeing the small size of the replica capsule and feeling the thinness of the helium balloon. (The actual capsule is displayed at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.) Simons was one brave man to confine himself inside that tight space for 44 hours. He was sealed in well before arriving at the iron mine pit from South Saint Paul. Claustrophobia got the best of another candidate. I would feel the same. Simons endured much—lack of sleep, extreme temperatures, uncertain weather, and the very real fear that he could die if the thin helium balloon developed even a crack.
As much as Jeff Bezos and crew made history with their 62-mile high, 10-minute and 25-second space journey, using the best technology possible, the flight of MAN HIGH II 64 years ago from a Minnesota mine pit impresses me even more. The people behind the 1957 flight truly represent pioneering in space. They blazed the trail for men to land on the moon and, yesterday, for civilians like Bezos to pursue space travel.
FYI: The Soo Line Depot Museum in Crosby houses a detailed display on MAN HIGH II. You can climb inside the replica capsule for a photo. Tour guide Tim was especially knowledgeable. You can also visit the site of the launch, the Portsmouth Pit by Crosby, although I didn’t this time. Next trip. I encourage you to check out the Crosby museum, which also highlights Minnesota’s worst mining disaster. More on that in an upcoming post.
© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling