In 1934 Sergei Korolev, future leader of the Soviet space program, published his first book: Rocket Flight to the Stratosphere. While a handful of people were talking about flight in outer space then, considerably more attention was being focused on the conquest of the upper atmosphere. An international race commenced with many of the characteristics of the space race decades later.

Crocco’s Refrigerated Supersonic Cabin
The Italian pioneer of aviation, General G. Arturo Crocco had been a major inspiration to Korolev and others, when his writings about Superaviation in the 1920s. Crocco pointed out the tremendous value of flying at extreme altitude and speed, but in 1926 he had proved that propellers couldn’t function in these conditions. Inspired by the new theory of jet engines developed by Soviet scientist Boris Stechkin, Crocco wrote an influential paper in 1931 advocating the use of ramjet engines to fly through the stratosphere at “super acoustic” velocity. At such speeds, the pilot’s cabin would have to be refrigerated to counteract the heat of friction with the atmosphere.

Soviet ramjet engine, GIRD-04
In 1933, Korolev’s jet propulsion research group in Moscow began the world’s first work on ramjet technology. GIRD-04 was a hydrogen powered engine, tested in a supersonic wind tunnel. History of this work has been largely eclipsed by GIRD-09, Korolev’s first rocket, launched later that year.

Soviet Balloon “Osoaviakhim-1”
Interest in the upper atmosphere soon triggered a dangerous international contest to reach the stratosphere in hydrogen balloons. One of the first to perish was the American explorer Hawthorne Grey, who reached an altitude of 12.9 kilometers. On the way back to Earth, his oxygen supply ran out and he suffocated.

In 1933, the balloon “USSR-1” reached 19 kilometers, performing cosmic-ray experiments and taking samples of the atmosphere for chemical analysis. The airtight nacelle carried liquid oxygen tanks and chemical scrubbers to remove carbon dioxide and excess water vapor.

A few months later, in January 1934, the balloon “Osoaviakhim-1” was launched. Osoaviakhim was a paramilitary club that sponsored events ranging from parachute-jumping clubs to the funding of Korolev’s research lab. Its confident pilots, Fedoseyenko, Vasenko and Usyskin, boasted that they would be “citizens of the stratosphere”. Osoaviachim-1 reached the record breaking altitude of 22 kilometers, but during its descent an unexpected cooling of the gas in the balloon caused it to contract and trigger an uncontrolled descent. Trying to remove the 24 bolts holding the hatch closed, the young aeronauts died when the capsule struck ground.

In 1939, the stratospheric balloon “Konsomol” was launched by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Its commander, A.A. Fomin sent a radio telegram to Stalin from an altitude of 16.8 kilometers. During his descent, at an altitude of 9 km, the hydrogen balloon caught fire and the capsule began to fall. Fomin quickly threw a switch to disconnect the nacelle from the flaming balloon, but when he pulled the parachute ring, it failed to deploy. At 6 km, they got the hatch open, then waited breathing from their oxygen supply while the capsule plummeted. At 4 km they could safely jump with personal parachutes.

1934 All-Union Conference on the Study of the Stratosphere
In 1934, a major conference was held on the study of the stratosphere. After an open address on the mastery of the stratosphere, by academician S.I. Vavilov, 79 scientists presented papers on the structure of the atmosphere, high altitude photography, spectroscopic studies of the far ultraviolet wavelengths blocked by the dense atmosphere, cosmic rays, biomedical problems of high altitude flight, and the technology of rockets and jet engines.

For Sergei Korolev, the conference was an important opportunity to promote his idea of boost-glide rocket planes, which has recently been cancelled by his new boss. In his report, he described a rocket-powered glider that would reach an altitude of 23 kilometers, and then glide a distance of 280 km. Shortly after, he was able to resume work on the project.

The published proceedings were 927 pages long, but when they were translated into English in 1938 the size had dropped to 307 pages. Only 39 authors were presented. In the intervening years, most of the missing authors had been executed or imprisoned during Stalin’s political purges.