Image of the Air Force wings with the museum name underneath

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
FREE Admission & Parking

Stargazer Gondola

Note: This artifact is currently undergoing conservation and is not on display.

Project Stargazer explored the possibility of doing astronomy from a manned high-altitude balloon. This joint effort by the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Smithsonian Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology flew in December 1962.

Air Force Capt. Joseph Kittinger piloted the balloon, while Navy astronomer William White made celestial observations. White used a remotely controlled telescope mounted on top of the gondola. The flight, launched from Holloman AFB, N.M., lasted 18 and a half hours and reached an altitude of about 82,000 feet.

Floating above most of the Earth’s atmosphere is an advantage for astronomers because the atmosphere distorts views from ground-based telescopes. It also absorbs ultraviolet and infrared starlight that provides important information. Stargazer’s high-flying balloon telescope was an experiment in overcoming these problems.

Being mounted on a moving vehicle, though, meant the telescope needed a gyroscopic stabilizer and electro-optical tracking. This gear allowed it to remain stable and point steadily at one spot in the sky. Stargazer tracked several stars accurately, including Capella, Rigel and Sirius.

A second Stargazer flight was planned for April 1963, but a balloon malfunction ended the mission before liftoff. The USAF canceled the program shortly afterward.

Gondola construction:
Aluminum, pressurized
Weight: 3,600 lbs.
Telescope: (not on display) Cassegrain reflector, mirror diameter 12 inches, focal length 120 inches, built by Ferson Optical Co.

Click here to return to the Space Gallery.

Find Out More
Col. (Ret.) Joseph Kittinger Jr.: "The Sky is My Office" (01:08:34)