Proto-Astronaut Clifton M. "Demi" McClure

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    At the same time, at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, tucked between the town of Alamogordo to the east and the White Sands National Monument and San Andres Mountains to the west, a diverse collection of U.S. civilians and military personnel prepared to send aloft the third?and final?entry in a quieter quest: scraping the edge of space in low-budget, high-altitude manned balloon flights into the stratosphere. Staffed by physicists, engineers, meteorologists, test pilots and balloon manufacturers, Project Manhigh, conducted under the look-the-other-way auspices of the Air Force, attempted to ascertain the feasibility of manned space flight, simulating its conditions in an effort to understand the attendant rigors and problems, both technical and human.

    As documented in Craig Ryan's 1995 book The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space, problems abounded. An incorrectly installed cabin oxygen system cut short the Manhigh I mission after it reached 96,000 feet, 19 miles above Earth, on June 2, 1957. Air Force Capt. Joe Kittinger, a test pilot?wearing a partial-pressure suit, breathing a mixed-gas atmosphere of 60 percent oxygen, 20 percent nitrogen and 20 percent helium, and strapped into a capsule/gondola the size of a severely cramped phone booth?emerged unscathed from his clear, 180-foot tall, plastic, helium-filled balloon. Then Air Force Maj. David Simons, a biomedical doctor, made it to 101,500 in Manhigh II on Aug. 19, 1957, staying at that altitude for 24 hours, while vexed by near-poisonous carbon dioxide levels.

    Before it left the ground on Oct. 8, 1958, the Manhigh III flight had already been scrubbed twice: on Oct. 1 because of bad weather, and on Oct. 6 when a fierce gust of wind slammed a balloon into the ground, shattering it into a thousand plastic shards. In the aftermath of Sputnik/Explorer, Project Manhigh had taken on a sudden urgency. But with NASA ready to assume U.S. space-race leadership, the project also faced extinction. Air Force Lieut. Clifton M. "Demi" McClure entered his instrument-jammed capsule, tethered to a three-million-cubic-foot balloon (the last available one), a little before midnight on Oct. 7, then waited. While checking a pressure gauge, he accidentally rubbed against and activated his emergency parachute, which hung beside him. It spilled out all over the capsule. Rather than inform his control crew and risk the flight's cancellation, McClure, shoehorned into a highly constricting suit, methodically repacked the chute for two hours, expending considerable energy in the process. He replaced the chute's restraining pins and reattached it to the wall, then realized he'd inadvertently put the pins in backwards. Stealthily, he repeated the procedure, finishing at 5 a.m. Almost two hours later, Manhigh III finally began its ascent.

    At 6 feet, 1 inch, 170 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes, McClure was considered the most physically and psychologically qualified candidate for Manhigh III, which, in part, sought to identify the best attributes for future space travelers. A test pilot and amateur astronomer, Demi McClure?nicknamed, the story goes, by the doctor who delivered him on Nov. 8, 1932, the day FDR was elected to his first term, succeeding three consecutive Republican presidents?joined the Air Force in 1955 after earning a master's in engineering at Clemson University. Born and reared in Anderson, SC, he learned to fly his father's three-seat "taildragger" at 11, soloing a few years later without his dad's permission. And once, accompanied by his future wife, Laurie Roberta ("Bobbie") Ligon, he positioned his plane to join a flock of ducks as they flew near the Savannah River, close to Anderson. "The ducks formed their V," Bobbie recalls, speaking from her home in Huntsville, AL, "and we could kind of herd them along. But you couldn't get them to go too far down the river, because they apparently had a destination, so they would break off, turn around and go back."

    By mid-morning on Oct. 8, McClure reached an altitude of 90,000 feet, and, Ryan reports in his book, radioed back to David Simons on the ground: "I see the most fantastic thing, the sky that you described. It's blacker than black, but it's saturated with blue like you said... I'm looking at it, but it seems more like I'm feeling it... I have the feeling that I should be able to see stars in this darkness, but I can't find them, either?I have the feeling that this black is so black it has put the stars out."

    At 10 a.m. the balloon rose to 99,600 feet, where McClure could discern the curvature of the Earth. But he was in serious trouble. Both the capsule's cabin temperature and McClure's body temperature were inordinately high: 93 and 101.4 Fahrenheit, respectively. Simons and the other project experts conferred on the ground. "I don't want to come down," McClure told them. "Repeat. I don't want to come down." Simons, the team's medical chief, thought otherwise, advising that McClure be ordered to descend. Everyone concurred, and McClure, now at 99,700 feet, was commanded to return. As the balloon began to descend, temperatures continued to ascend: at 4 p.m. and 85,000 feet, cabin 118, McClure 105.2. An hour later, radio communications died. McClure's temp read 107. "Remarkably," remembers Bobbie, who followed the action through a telescope in Alamogordo, "he maintained control of the balloon." Finally, Manhigh III crashed down at an elevation of 4000 feet in the San Andres Mountains. After jettisoning the balloon, McClure clambered out of his capsule, pulled off his helmet and, grinning, consoled the three project members who had arrived via helicopter to fetch him: "Now, now, don't be discouraged." They immediately took his temperature?108.5?but an hour after he'd landed it had decreased to 100. "I don't know what all the fuss is about," McClure kidded his colleagues. "I just started to simmer, heat up, and boil all over."

    Depending on who's doing the explaining, the overheating was attributable to McClure's unnecessary repacking of his emergency parachute for almost four hours or, more likely, the gondola's inadequate supply of dry ice, intended to act as a cooling agent. Whatever, Project Manhigh evaporated after the McClure mission, with NASA assuming responsibility for the nation's space program. The Soviets ultimately won the manned space race when, on April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth once. A bit more than three weeks later, America's Alan Shepard achieved suborbital flight for 15 minutes.

    As for McClure, NASA passed him over as a potential astronaut. "They just wanted all these old guys," he related to Ryan. "John Glenn was 15 years older than I was, old enough to be Gagarin's father. I could've done it." Meanwhile, the Air Force tried to lure him into research, but, as his wife notes, "He wanted to fly." So he quit, signing on with the South Carolina Air National Guard to test-pilot F-104s as part of a fighter interceptor squadron sent to Spain in 1962 to support the Berlin Airlift.

    In 1967 the couple resettled in Huntsville, where they founded Aqua Space, a dive shop and scuba instruction business, both teaching classes until 1983. Dissatisfied with the standard pumping devices for scuba tanks, McClure fashioned his own equipment, which he sold to other dive-related companies. He also modified the apparatus to create a high-quality filtration system and a high-pressure storage tank, which he and Bobbie, as the firm Consumer Fuels, marketed to workers doing hazardous materials removal, primarily asbestos. She still owns the business; he served as its chief engineer.

    Not long before Demi McClure died of a brain hemorrhage, at age 67 on Jan. 14 in a Huntsville hospital, he was planning to take out a patent on a concept that could help deter tornadoes and, simultaneously, working on the design for a small coast-to-coast rocket plane capable of flying cross-country in 19 minutes. "He could have done it," Bobbie sighs wistfully. "He just poured out ideas."

    Send tips regarding departed worthies to: