Space is actually very close to us - just fly 62 miles upward and you'll get there. But on the edge of the atmospheric frontier comes a zone of great risk: A lack of oxygen, high radiation and unpredictable weather conditions are all things that balloonists faced when they explored the highest altitudes.
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‘Space Men‘ is a new PBS documentary (premiering March 1, 9 p.m. EST) about this zone, which was explored in detail by human balloon flights during the 1950s and 1960s. History has sometimes forgotten about these men, even though they were exploring the high frontier years before the NASA Mercury astronauts donned a spacesuit. (For comparison, the first human flight into space was in 1962). And for anyone who watched Felix Baumgartner's supersonic high-altitude balloon jump in 2012, ballooning is a type of research replete with as much drama as science.
"There is a sort of ‘Wild West' quality that they were doing that definitely comes across, and it was this uncharted territory," said Amanda Pollak, the writer, director and producer of the documentary, in an interview with Discovery News. She emphasized that science was the focus, but said: "I think at that moment in time, a lot of the rules had not been laid down because no one knew to lay them down yet."