The Mark Ridge (Haldane-Davis) Space Suit

In the early 1930's, the general scientific view was that at very high altitudes death would be almost instantaneous and inevitable. The lack of pressure would let the body swell up like a balloon. Gases in all of the body's tissues would expand wildly and escape to the void. Any higher than 63,000 ft and the pressure is so low that water begins to boil at 98 degrees Fahrenheit. That means three-quarters of human blood would violently expand into thousands of gas pockets.

The only explorers of these heights were inside of hermetically sealed and pressurized "gondolas" suspended beneath of balloons. In 1875 Russian physical chemist D. I. Mendeleyev, best known for his invention of the periodic table of the elements, first proposed this approach for exploring the stratosphere. It wasn't until 1931 that Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard first ventured into the stratosphere using this technique. On his first flight he reached a height of 51,777 ft, and on a second a year later reached 53,152 ft. The idea of approaching such heights without a gondola was unthinkable.

Mark Edward Ridge of Massachusetts wanted desperately to fly in the stratosphere, with only a specially designed suit to protect him. In Ridge's own words, " ... enclose the airman in an airtight dress, somewhat similar to a diving dress, but capable of resisting an internal pressure of, say, 130 mm [millimeters of mercury]. The dress would be so arranged that even in a complete vacuum the contained oxygen would still have a pressure of 130 mm. There would then be no physiological limit to height attainable." In 1933, at the age of 27, Ridge started a lifelong quest to develop and fly his space suit. He talked to physiologists at the Harvard Medical School, notably Phillip Drinker, to Dr. Robert Millikan, Professor Albert Einstein and others. But to test his suit, he would need to use a vacuum chamber, and the only suitable one he knew of was in the possession of the Experimental Diving Unit of the U. S. Navy. To secure the use of the chamber, he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, Claude Swanson. After investigators determined that Ridge was interested in "... publicity purposes rather than scientific research", and that Ridge "... would not be competent to properly conduct such research"; he was flatly denied his request. Even appeals to his Representative and Senator were not able to gain Ridge access to the chamber. So Ridge went to Dr. John Scott Haldane and Sir Robert H. Davis of Siebe, Gorman & Co. Both men, and the company, had very successful pasts in pioneering the development of deep-sea diving. 20 years before being approached be Ridge, the company's Neptune Works research installation had various test chambers. In fact, in 1920 Haldane proposed a sealed suit for exploring high altitudes in detail in Respiration. In less than a month, the three men had produced a modified diving suit suitable for space; it was the Haldane-Davis or Mark Ridge suit, the world's first space suit. In November 16, 1933 Ridge tested the suit to a pressure equal to that at 50,000 ft., everything worked perfectly. Two weeks later, he tested the suit to the limits of the chamber, 90,000 ft.

But during the design of the suit, three Soviet balloonists - K. Godunov, G. Prokofiev, and E. Birnbaum-reached a height of 60,695 ft in a balloon called the USSR. This was only 8,055 ft short of Ridge's 13-mile goal. While the USSR was another gondola structure, Ridge still wanted to get off the ground. With his recent success in the altitude chamber, the Royal Air Force was interested in the design. With such a suit, planes could travel at high altitudes without the expensive and heavy pressurized cabin systems. Furthermore, a shot fired through the cabin would not mean instant death for the crew. (all of this development was just pre-World War II) But for these very reasons, they refused to loan Ridge a balloon. A balloon is rather uncontrolled, and could drift, with the space suit, into the hands of enemies of Britain.

So Ridge looked for other sponsors of his balloon flight, but they were hesitant. The suit had survived the pressure, but what about the cold? So Ridge convinced the Liquid Carbonic Corporation, which produced dry ice (solid carbon-dioxide), that a test would be good publicity. But before they closed the door to seal him in a steel box lined with dry ice, his oxygen facemask started to leak the carbon-dioxide fumes. The next day Ridge had repaired the mask, but the head of the company refused to repeat the test, national publicity about the failure had not been what he wanted. Ridge continued to pursue his dream, even sending a letter directly to the President of the United States, but due to prohibitive cost of balloons, and a lack of backers, he never got to fly. In 1942 Mark Ridge was locked up in a mental institution and spent the next 20 years in various institutions around Boston. On April 16, 1962, at the age of 56, Mark Ridge died, never realizing his dream of flying into the stratosphere in an open balloon.

But he did test and manufacture the first space suit. And, unbeknownst to him because it was classified information at the time, his encounter with the Royal Air Force led to their own development and testing of space suits patterned after the Haldane-Davis suit that broke altitude records in airplanes instead of balloons.


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