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A man on High
Local was pioneer in space exploration

COVINGTON - In a small house in Covington lives Dr. David G. Simons, an 86-year-old man with a snow-white beard and a mischievous smile. He spends most of his time sitting in his recliner in a room overtaken by books.

Books, books and more books, lining the walls, stacked on tables and desks.

There is one book that sits face out on a top shelf that tells you this man must be someone extraordinary: it's a LIFE magazine, dated September 2, 1957, and Simons is on the cover.

Indeed, Simons is special. He made history just a few days before the magazine was published, when he became the first person to go to the edge of space, helping to pave the way for human space exploration.

It happened before NASA, when the U.S. Air Force was heading up space research. A team of doctors, including Simons, studied the effects of cosmic radiation and other hazards of space by using balloons to carry laboratory animals above 99 percent of the atmosphere.

They worked at the Aeromedical Field Laboratory at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and their research eventually included human pilots, becoming known as Project Manhigh.

Simons had previously been project officer of a secret Air Force project to monitor heart rate and respiration of monkeys in space flight. In 1957, he was assigned to determine the hazard that heavy primary cosmic radiation poses to astronauts by doing stratosphere animal studies using balloons.

One day, his boss asked if Simons thought the flights were safe for man, and offered him the chance to try it out.

Simons immediately said yes.

"I have an incurable disease. I have a pioneering spirit," Simons said, recalling how he didn't give a second thought to the danger involved. "If it's something new, I can't resist the temptation to explore and experience it."

Simons worked under Col. John Paul Stapp, a pioneer in studying the effects of acceleration and deceleration forces on humans and known as the fastest man on earth.

Stapp was famous for his attention to any and every possible mishap, and trained his men to prepare for the worst.

Such was Simons' confidence in Stapp and the rest of his team that fear didn't come into play. Instead, he said he thought, "Wow, what a fantastic opportunity to spend hours and hours where nobody ever spent any time. They had just gone up and gone down."

On Aug. 19, Simons boarded a sealed capsule that he said resembled "an old-fashioned telephone booth" and had about as much room.

The capsule was attached to a 3-million-cubic-foot polyethylene balloon and was launched from an open-face mine near Crosby, Minn.

Simons was not the first pilot to make the flight: Capt. Joseph W. Kittinger had that honor. But it was Simons' flight that would make the record books.

Simons exceeded Kittinger's duration and altitude, staying aloft for 32 hours and remaining at 101,000 feet for about five hours.

The flight set a world record for manned high altitude balloons that lasted six years.

Simons was the first man in history to see the sun rise and set from the edge of space.

From that altitude, he could see the horizon and the curvature of the earth.

"No one else had been up that high for that long," he said. "This was before Sputnik. There were no space flights and here are these Air Force nuts worrying about the human hazards of space flight when there was no space flight."

But, "The flight was a success because we were prepared," he said.

One thing the advising meteorologist could not be prepared for, however, was a fast-moving cold front. Simons marveled as he viewed about 60 thunderstorms taking place on Earth simultaneously.

"It looked like a big brain to me," he said of the clouds illuminated by lightning.

Simons was safe from the turbulence, with about 40,000 feet separating him from the storm. Exhausted, he drifted to sleep, and awoke to discover the balloon had drifted downward into the turbulence.

At a temperature of -60 degrees, the balloon was freezing over.

"That was a real emergency," Simons said.

Simons took the chance that the balloon might break and dropped a battery pack to reduce the weight of the capsule in order to rise above the turbulence. Incredibly, it worked just as he had hoped.

His flight proved that the sealed cabin would sustain human life in the hostile environment of space, and rendered valuable scientific observations.

After a few more experiments, the Air Force ran out of funding and Project Manhigh died.

When the government formed NASA in 1958, the Air Force physicians who had risked their lives and contributed invaluable information on space exploration were shut out of future missions. Even their research was not accepted.

Simons moved on with his life.

In 1964, as a flight surgeon at the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine in Texas, he took telemetered recordings of functions such as brain waves, heart rate, respiration and skin resistance of pilots flying an airplane, establishing what was the prototype of modern hospital monitoring systems.

He made more history when he began working with Dr. Janet G. Travell, President John F. Kennedy's White House physician, to find causes and solutions for myofascial pain.

This type of pain is caused by trigger points, sensitive and painful areas between the muscle and fascia, or the soft tissue component of the connective tissue system that interpenetrates and surrounds muscles, bones, organs, nerves, blood vessels and other structures.

In 1995, as a Veterans Affairs physician working in California, he first reported the hypothesis that myofascial trigger points cause the majority of musculoskeletal pains.

Simons has co-authored five books on the subject, which have been translated into 11 foreign languages.

Simons moved to Covington after retiring nearly 20 years ago, but his research is not done.

Last year, he began studying the cause and progression of climate change, and is in the process of writing a book on the subject.

Simons has had an extraordinary life that is still being lived to the fullest. But what has it all meant to him?

Perhaps that's best answered by his response when asked what, apart from the scientific knowledge, he took away from his experience on the threshold of space.

He looked a bit baffled, and a bit miffed, at the question.

"What else is there?" he said.

If you wait for it, though, the answer comes.

"I like to make a difference. I was able to contribute new knowledge. I was simply very happy that I made a difference by doing that flight."

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.

SideBar: If You Go

Dr. David G. Simons will present the findings of his research on the causes, progression and possible solutions to climate change at a work session scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall, located at 2194 Emory St., Covington.

Simons said he will focus on solar energy, and how it can be used by individuals and potentially the city.

"From my point of view, solar energy is the answer on the alternative source of energy," he said.