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National Geographic Society - Army Air Corps Stratosphere Balloon Flight Collectibles - Stratosphere Mail

Along with the small National Geographic Society presentation Flags (discussed in last week's posting), a packet of "Stratosphere Mail" was loaded into the gondola during preparations for the July 28, 1934 launch of the National Geographic Society - U. S. Army Air Corps Stratosphere Balloon, Explorer.  The letter inside each Stratosphere Mail envelope began by stating: "This letter brings you cordial greetings from the Stratosphere!" (See the complete text in the attached photo.)  Surviving the crash of the Explorer gondola, the letters were postmarked at 11:00 pm on July 28, 1934 and mailed from Omaha, Nebr.


Known as "Flown Mail" in the world of Aerophilately, such letters were created to commemorate a specific flight; hopefully in this case, a new manned-flight alititude record.  Although the Explorer Balloon did not set a new altitude record, the drama of the flight and ultimate crash made headlines all over the world.  The attached photo of the 1934 Stratosphere Mail was sent to the brother of Captain Albert W. Stevens, Explorer Balloon Scientific Officer.


Traditionally, Flown Mail is first postmarked at the post office nearest to the take-off (or in this case, the lift-off) point and then postmarked and mailed at the post office nearest to the landing point.  With the uncertainty of the actual launch date, the Explorer Stratosphere Mail was only postmarked at the completion of the flight.  This was changed for the flight of Explorer II.


On July 11, 1935, final preparations began for the launch of the Explorer II Balloon.  The Stratosphere Mail for the National Geographic Society - U. S. Army Air Corps Stratosphere Flight of 1935 with a Rapid City, S. Dak. postmark of 4:00 am, Jul 12, 1935 was aboard the gondola when the balloon burst during inflation at 3:00 am that morning.  The mail was removed and placed in safe-keeping until the second attempt to launch Explorer II.  Sometime during the period after the failed launch attempt, additional information was printed on the back of the Stratosphere Mail envelope explaining what happened on July 12, 1935.  With a Rapid City, S. Dak. postmark of 5:00 am, Nov 11, 1935 added to the back of the envelope, the Stratosphere Mail lifted off with Explorer II that cold November morning.  A third postmark was added after the safe landing of the Explorer II Balloon.  This postmark reads:  White Lake, S. Dak. 4 PM, Nov 11, 1935.  Examples also exist with only two postmarks.  Either some of the original envelopes were not postmarked in July or additional envelopes where printed.  These examples have a Rapid City, S. Dak., 5:00 am, Nov 11, 1935 postmark and the White lake postmark on the front.  The attached examples show the variations of the postmarks and the enclosed Stratosphere Mail card.  As in the case of the letter enclosed in the Explorer Stratosphere Mail, the card was signed by the balloonists.


Has anyone seen other variations of the Stratosphere Mail flown on the National Geographic Society - U. S. Army Air Corps Stratosphere Flights of 1934 and 1935?


Next week's discussion will cover other commemorative mail related to the Explorer Balloon flights: First Day Covers and First Day Issues.

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Of course, it comes as no surprise that the National Geographic Society dsired to capitalize on this event by advertising it prominently amongst the members. A 1934 promotional leaflet featured the Explorer I Stratosphere flight as well (1st attachment).

In 1966, Explorer I also featured on the rear cover of the National Press Club parody issue (2nd attachment). This lively image (painting) was done by Tom Lovell. I believe Lovell's work made its first appearance in the 75th NGS Anniversary book, "Great Adventures With National Geographic: Exploring Land, Sea, and Sky" in 1963, pps. 444/45.

The proper caption reads: "GAS BAG SHREDDED, Explorer I drops a mile a minute with only 800 feet to go. Kepner's frantic kick frees the author as Anderson floats safely to earth in the distance. Kepner jumped at 300 feet."

Somewhere along the line, Lovell's painting was made available into a print (possibly framed) because I have seen another collector who owns one. I have never seen an advertisement for it though. Bummer!



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