Books by Ryan, Craig

Ryan, Craig. Magnificent Failure. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58834-141-9.
In his 1995 book, The Pre-Astronauts (which I read before I began keeping this list), the author masterfully explores the pioneering U.S. balloon flights into the upper atmosphere between the end of World War II and the first manned space flights, which brought both Air Force and Navy manned balloon programs to an abrupt halt. These flights are little remembered today (except for folks lucky enough to have an attic [or DVD] full of National Geographics from the epoch, which covered them in detail). Still less known is the story recounted here: one man's quest, fuelled only by ambition, determination, willingness to do whatever it took, persuasiveness, and sheer guts, to fly higher and free-fall farther than any man had ever done before. Without the backing of any military service, government agency, wealthy patron, or corporate sponsor, he achieved his first goal, setting an altitude record for lighter than air flight which remains unbroken more than four decades later, and tragically died from injuries sustained in his attempt to accomplish the second, after an in-flight accident which remains enigmatic and controversial to this day.

The term “American original” is over-used in describing exceptional characters that nation has produced, but if anybody deserves that designation, Nick Piantanida does. The son of immigrant parents from the Adriatic island of Korčula (now part of Croatia), Nick was born in 1932 and grew up on the gritty Depression-era streets of Union City, New Jersey in the very cauldron of the American melting pot, amid communities of Germans, Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Syrians, and Greeks. Although universally acknowledged to be extremely bright, his interests in school were mostly brawling and basketball. He excelled in the latter, sharing the 1953 YMCA All-America honours with some guy named Wilt Chamberlain. After belatedly finishing high school (bored, he had dropped out to start a scrap iron business, but was persuaded to return by his parents), he joined the Army where he was All-Army in basketball for both years of his hitch and undefeated as a heavyweight boxer. After mustering out, he received a full basketball scholarship to Fairleigh Dickinson University, then abruptly quit a few months into his freshman year, finding the regimentation of college life as distasteful as that of the Army.

In search of fame, fortune, and adventure, Nick next set his sights on Venezuela, where he vowed to be the first to climb Devil's Mountain, from which Angel Falls plummets 807 metres. Penniless, he recruited one of his Army buddies as a climbing partner and lined up sponsors to fund the expedition. At the outset, he knew nothing about mountaineering, so he taught himself on the Hudson River Palisades with the aid of books from the library. Upon arrival in Venezuela, the climbers learnt to their dismay that another expedition had just completed the first ascent of the mountain, so Nick vowed to make the first ascent of the north face, just beside the falls, which was thought unclimbable. After an arduous trip through the jungle, during which their guide quit and left the climbers alone, Nick and his partner made the ascent by themselves and returned to the acclaim of all. Such was the determination of this man.

Nick was always looking for adventure, celebrity, and the big score. He worked for a while as a steelworker on the high iron of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but most often supported himself and, after his marriage, his growing family, by contract truck driving and, occasionally, unemployment checks. Still, he never ceased to look for ways, always unconventional, to make his fortune, nor failed to recruit associates and find funding for his schemes. Many of his acquaintances use the word “hustler” to describe him in those days, and one doubts that Nick would be offended by the honorific. He opened an exotic animal import business, and ordered cobras, mongooses, goanna lizards, and other critters mail-order from around the world for resale to wealthy clients. When buyers failed to materialise, he staged gladiatorial contests of both animal versus animal and animal versus himself. Eventually he imported a Bengal tiger cub which he kept in his apartment until it had grown so large it could put its paws on his shoulders, whence he traded the tiger for a decrepit airplane (he had earned a pilot's license while still in his teens). Offered a spot on the New York Knicks professional basketball team, he turned it down because he thought he could make more money barnstorming in his airplane.

Nick finally found his life's vocation when, on a lark, he made a parachute jump. Soon, he had progressed from static line beginner jumps to free fall and increasingly advanced skydiving, making as many jumps as he could afford and find the time for. And then he had the Big Idea. In 1960, Joseph Kittinger had ridden a helium balloon to an altitude of 31,333 metres and bailed out, using a small drogue parachute to stabilise his fall until he opened his main parachute at an altitude of 5,330 metres. Although this was, at the time (and remains to this day) the highest altitude parachute jump ever made, skydiving purists do not consider it a true free fall jump due to the use of the stabilising chute. In 1962, Eugene Andreev jumped from a Soviet balloon at an altitude of 25,460 metres and did a pure free fall descent, stabilising himself purely by skydiving techniques, setting an official free-fall altitude record which also remains unbroken. Nick vowed to claim both the record for highest altitude ascent and longest free-fall jump for himself, and set about it with his usual energy and single-minded determination.

Piantanida faced a daunting set of challenges in achieving his goal: at the outset he had neither balloon, gondola, spacesuit, life support system, suitable parachute, nor any knowledge of or experience with the multitude of specialities whose mastery is required to survive in the stratosphere, above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere. Kittinger and Andreev were supported by all the resources, knowledge, and funding of their respective superpowers' military establishments, while Nick had—well…Nick. But he was not to be deterred, and immediately set out educating himself and lining up people, sponsors, and gear necessary for the attempt.

The story of what became known as Project Strato-Jump reads like an early Heinlein novel, with an indomitable spirit pursuing a goal other, more “reasonable”, people considered absurd or futile. By will, guile, charm, pull, intimidation, or simply wearing down adversaries until they gave in just to make him go away, he managed to line up everything he needed, including having the company which supplied NASA with its Project Gemini spacesuits custom tailor one (Nick was built like an NBA star, not an astronaut) and loan it to him for the project.

Finally, on October 22, 1965, all was ready, and Nick took to the sky above Minnesota, bound for the edge of space. But just a few minutes after launch, at just 7,000 metres, the balloon burst, probably due to a faulty seam in the polyethylene envelope, triggered by a wind shear at that altitude. Nick rode down in the gondola under its recovery parachute, then bailed out at 3200 metres, unglamorously landing in the Pig's Eye Dump in St. Paul.

Undeterred by the failure, Nick recruited a new balloon manufacturer and raised money for a second attempt, setting off again for the stratosphere a second time on February 2, 1966. This time the ascent went flawlessly, and the balloon rose to an all-time record altitude of 37,643 metres. But as Nick proceeded through the pre-jump checklist, when he attempted to disconnect the oxygen hose that fed his suit from the gondola's supply and switch over to the “bail out bottle” from which he would breathe during the descent, the disconnect fitting jammed, and he was unable to dislodge it. He was, in effect, tethered to the gondola by his oxygen line and had no option but to descend with it. Ground control cut the gondola's parachute from the balloon, and after a harrowing descent Nick and gondola landed in a farm field with only minor injuries. The jump had failed, but Nick had flown higher than any manned balloon ever had. But since the attempt was not registered as an official altitude attempt, although the altitude attained is undisputed, the record remains unofficial.

After the second failure, Nick's confidence appeared visibly shaken. Having all that expense, work, and risk undertaken come to nought due to a small detail with which nobody had been concerned prior to the flight underlined just how small the margin for error was in the extreme environment at the edge of space and, by implication, how the smallest error or oversight could lead to disaster. Still, he was bent on trying yet again, and on May 1, 1966 (since he was trying to break a Soviet record, he thought this date particularly appropriate), launched for the third time. Everything went normally as the balloon approached 17,375 metres, whereupon the ground crew monitoring the air to ground voice link heard what was described as a “whoosh” or hiss, followed by a call of “Emergen” from Nick, followed by silence. The ground crew immediately sent a radio command to cut the balloon loose, and the gondola, with Nick inside, began to descend under its cargo parachute.

Rescue crews arrived just moments after the gondola touched down and found it undamaged, but Nick was unconscious and unresponsive. He was rushed to the local hospital, treated without avail, and then transferred to a hospital in Minneapolis where he was placed in a hyperbaric chamber where treatment for decompression sickness was administered, without improvement. On June 18th, he was transferred to the National Institute of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was examined and treated by experts in decompression disease and hypoxia, but never regained consciousness. He died on August 25, 1966, with an autopsy finding the cause of death hypoxia and ruptures of the tissue in the brain due to decompression.

What happened to Nick up there in the sky? Within hours after the accident, rumours started to circulate that he was the victim of equipment failure: that his faceplate had blown out or that the pressure suit had failed in some other manner, leading to an explosive decompression. This story has been repeated so often it has become almost canon—consider this article from Wired from July 2002. Indeed, when rescuers arrived on the scene, Nick's “faceplate” was damaged, but this was just the sun visor which can be pivoted down to cover the pressure-retaining faceplate, which was intact and, in a subsequent test of the helmet, found to seal perfectly. Rescuers assumed the sun visor was damaged by impact with part of the gondola during the landing and, in any case, would not have caused a decompression however damaged.

Because the pressure suit had been cut off in the emergency room, it wasn't possible to perform a full pressure test, but meticulous inspection of the suit by the manufacturer discovered no flaws which could explain an explosive decompression. The oxygen supply system in the gondola was found to be functioning normally, with all pressure vessels and regulators operating within specifications.

So, what happened? We will never know for sure. Unlike a NASA mission, there was no telemetry, nor even a sequence camera recording what was happening in the gondola. And yet, within minutes after the accident occurred, many members of the ground crew came to a conclusion as to the probable cause, which those still alive today have seen no need to revisit. Such was their certainty that reporter Robert Vaughan gave it as the cause in the story he filed with Life magazine, which he was dismayed to see replaced with an ambiguous passage by the editors, because his explanation did not fit with the narrative chosen for the story. (The legacy media acted like the legacy media even when they were the only media and not yet legacy!)

Astonishingly, all the evidence (which, admittedly, isn't very much) seems to indicate that Nick opened his helmet visor at that extreme altitude, which allowed the air in suit to rush out (causing the “whoosh”), forcing the air from his lungs (cutting off the call of “Emergency!”), and rapidly incapacitating him. The extended hypoxia and exposure to low pressure as the gondola descended under the cargo parachute caused irreversible brain damage well before the gondola landed. But why would Nick do such a crazy thing as open his helmet visor when in the physiological equivalent of space? Again, we can never know, but what is known is that he'd done it before, at lower altitudes, to the dismay of his crew, who warned him of the potentially dire consequences. There is abundant evidence that Piantanida violated the oxygen prebreathing protocol before high altitude exposure not only on this flight, but on a regular basis. He reported symptoms completely consistent with decompression sickness (the onset of “the bends”), and is quoted as saying that he could relieve the symptoms by deflating and reinflating his suit. Finally, about as close to a smoking gun as we're likely to find, the rescue crew found Nick's pressure visor unlatched and rotated away from the seal position. Since Nick would have been in a coma well before he entered breathable atmosphere, it isn't possible he could have done this before landing, and there is no way an impact upon landing could have performed the precise sequence of operations required to depressurise the suit and open the visor.

It is impossible put oneself inside the mind of such an outlier in the human population as Nick, no less imagine what he was thinking and feeling when rising into the darkness above the dawn on the third attempt at achieving his dream. He was almost certainly suffering from symptoms of decompression sickness due to inadequate oxygen prebreathing, afflicted by chronic sleep deprivation in the rush to get the flight off, and under intense stress to complete the mission before his backers grew discouraged and the money ran out. All of these factors can cloud the judgement of even the most disciplined and best trained person, and, it must be said, Nick was neither. Perhaps the larger puzzle is why members of his crew who did understand these things, did not speak up, pull the plug, or walk off the project when they saw what was happening. But then a personality like Nick can sweep people along through its own primal power, for better or for worse; in this case, to tragedy.

Was Nick a hero? Decide for yourself—my opinion is no. In pursuing his own ego-driven ambition, he ended up leaving his wife a widow and his three daughters without a father they remember, with only a meagre life insurance policy to support them. The project was basically a stunt, mounted with the goal of turning its success into money by sales of story, film, and celebrity appearances. Even had the jump succeeded, it would have yielded no useful aeromedical research data applicable to subsequent work apart from the fact that it was possible. (In Nick's defence on this account, he approached the Air Force and NASA, inviting them to supply instrumentation and experiments for the jump, and was rebuffed.)

This book is an exhaustively researched (involving many interviews with surviving participants in the events) and artfully written account of this strange episode which was, at the same time, the last chapter of the exploration of the black beyond by intrepid men in their floating machines and a kind of false dawn precursor of the private exploration of space which is coming to the fore almost half a century after Nick Piantanida set out to pursue his black sky dream. The only embarrassing aspect to this superb book is that on occasion the author equates state-sponsored projects with competence, responsibility, and merit. Well, let's see…. In a rough calculation, using 2007 constant dollars, NASA has spent northward of half a trillion dollars, killing a total of 17 astronauts (plus other employees in industrial accidents on the ground), with all of the astronaut deaths due to foreseeable risks which management failed to identify or mitigate in time.

Project Strato-Jump, funded entirely by voluntary contributions, without resort to the state's monopoly on the use of force, set an altitude record for lighter than air flight within the atmosphere which has stood from 1966 to this writing, and accomplished it in three missions with a total budget of less than (2007 constant) US$400,000, with the loss of a single life due to pilot error. Yes, NASA has achieved much, much more. But a million times more?

This is a very long review, so if you've made it to this point and found it tedious, please accept my excuses. Nick Piantanida has haunted me for decades. I followed his exploits as they happened, and were reported on the CBS Evening News in the 1960s. I felt the frustration of the second flight (with that achingly so far and yet so near view of the Earth from altitude, when he couldn't jump), and then the dismay at the calamity on the third, then the long vigil ending with his sad demise. Astronauts were, well, astronauts, but Nick was one of us. If a truck driver from New Jersey could, by main force, travel to the black of space, then why couldn't any of us? That was the real dream of the Space Age: Have Space Suit—Will Travel. Well, Nick managed to lay his hands on a space suit and travel he did!

Anybody who swallowed the bogus mainstream media narrative of Nick's “suit failure” had to watch the subsequent Gemini and Apollo EVA missions with a special sense of apprehension. A pressure suit is one of the few things in the NASA space program which has no backup: if the pressure garment fails catastrophically, you're dead before you can do anything about it. (A slow leak isn't a problem, since there's an oxygen purge system which can maintain pressure until you can get inside, but a major seam failure, or having a visor blow out or glove pop off is endsville.) Knowing that those fellows cavorting on the Moon were wearing pretty much the same suit as Nick caused those who believed the propaganda version of his death to needlessly catch their breath every time one of them stumbled and left a sitzmark or faceplant in the eternal lunar regolith.

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