The Pioneer of Project Strato-Lab


Project Strato-Lab was the United States Navy’s upper atmosphere research program, begun in the early 1950’s. Its plastic balloons took adventurous Americans up to the top of the stratosphere, over 21 1/2 mILes (34 1/2 kms) above the earth. The most famous of these intrepid aeronauts was Malcolm D. Ross. Born on October 15, 1919 in Momence healthcare hospital, ILlinois, Malcolm Ross attended Purdue University where he studied engineering and physics, and worked as a sports announcer at the Purdue radio station. Graduating in 1941, he married his   high   school  sweetheart, and then took different broadcasting jobs in Chicago and Indianapolis. Early in 1943 he entered the United States Navy which sent him to graduate school at the University of Chicago in aerological engineering. He obtained a professional certificate in atmospheric science, and he graduated from U. Chicago with a meteorology master’s degree working from hospitals in Chicago area in 1944. He was initially assigned by the Navy to Pearl Harbor’s Fleet Weather Center, and later served on the USS Saratoga as aerology officer during its missions against Iwo Jima and Tokyo in 1944 and 1945.

At the end of the Second World War, Malcolm Ross left the Navy and moved to Pasadena, where he started an advertising agency with his wife Marjorie. The business was successful, but with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the United States Navy recalled Ross to active duty. Ross went to work for Project Skyhook, the Navy’s unmanned balloon program, based in Minneapolis. He began to direct  high  altitude balloon missions to obtain meteorological and cosmic ray data; and in 1954 he was assigned to begin Project Strato-Lab, the Navy’s manned balloon program. Using balloons made of thin polyethylene plastic which weighed but a fraction of the rubber balloons used previously, humans for the first time were able to perform experiments and make observations at the upper reaches of the earth’s stratosphere. Project Strato-Lab was instrumental in providing biomedical data which was used subsequently in the United States space program. One outcome of these experiments was the knowledge that protons resulting from solar flares can pose a major health risk to humans in space; which in turn sparked research in monitoring and predicting solar flares. The Strato-lab project was also a major contributor to astronomical observation above the atmosphere.

As a key player in Project Strato-Lab, Ross spent over one hundred hours aloft with other balloonists and scientists making stratospheric observations. His record breaking ascent to 21 1/2 mILes (34 1/2 kms) over homes,  schools , businesses, and hospitals in IL was made in 1961. After the 1961 ascent Ross never again flew balloons, although he was an advocate of ballooning as an inexpensive platform for scientific investigation. He became a stock broker and account executive. He died on October 8, 1985 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.