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Malcolm David Ross (October 15, 1919 – October 8, 1985) was a captain in the United States Naval Reserve (USNR), an atmospheric scientist, and a balloonist who set several records for altitude and scientific inquiry, with more than 100 hours flight time in gas balloons by 1961. Along with Lieutenant Commander Victor A. Prather (USN), he set the altitude record for a manned balloon flight.
Malcolm Ross was born on October 15, 1919 in Momence, Illinois, the son of Mr. and Mrs. J. R. Ross of 1825 Garden Street, West Lafayette, Indiana. He spent most of his early life in West Lafayette. About 1932, his family moved to a farm in Linden, Montgomery Country, Indiana. He attended all four years in Linden High School and graduated in 1936. Malcolm Ross received a scholarship to attend Purdue University to study civil engineering. While at Purdue, he worked at the campus radio station as a sports announcer and changed his major to creative writing, communication, and radio. However, Malcolm Ross graduated from Purdue in June 1941 with a BS in physics. After college, he married his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Martin, and took broadcasting jobs in Anderson, Chicago, and Indianapolis.
In January 1943, Ross was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Naval Reserve. After he completed two months training at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, the Navy sent him to graduate school for nine months training in physics and general meteorology at the University of Chicago. In June 1944, he completed the training with a professional certificate in meteorology and atmospheric science.
The Navy initially assigned Ross to the Fleet Weather Center at Pearl Harbor. Later he served as the aerology officer aboard the USS Saratoga while it was flying missions against Tokyo and Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean theater of World War II, from 1944 to 1945. Ross received a campaign star in his Pacific Theater Ribbon for the first carrier plane strike at Tokyo in February 1945 and for the Iwo Jima invasion.
After World War II ended, Ross was released from the military. He returned to civilian life and opened an advertising agency in Pasadena, California, where his wife, Marjorie, had moved during World War II. Marjorie worked in the agency as the office manager. The business continued successfully until June 1950, when Ross was recalled to active duty for the Korean War as a lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve. Initially, Malcolm Ross was stationed as an instructor in radiological defense for the Naval Damage Control Training Center at Treasure Island, in San Francisco. From there he was able to commute home during weekends to spend time with his family and maintain the advertising business. This came to an end when in 1951 the Navy reassigned Ross to work as the liaison officer for the Office of Naval Research in Minneapolis.
The Navy's unmanned balloon program, Project Skyhook, was based in Minneapolis, which was also a center of balloon research and development being carried out by the University of Minnesota and General Mills. In 1953, Ross was transferred to the air branch of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in Washington, D.C. as Balloon Projects Director. In this position, he began to direct high-altitude balloon projects to obtain cosmic ray and meteorological data with the Project Skyhook program, working with Ruby Ward as the contracts negotiator of the ONR. Ross was technical director for Project Churchy, an expedition to the Galápagos Islands to obtain cosmic ray and meteorological data from balloon flights. He arranged for balloon launchings at Goodfellow Air Force Base in 1954 and 1955. He was a member of the scientific group that launched balloons for the ONR at Saskatoon, Canada, and photographed the 1954 eclipse of the sun from a Skyhook balloon over Minneapolis.
During his tour as ONR's Balloon Projects Officer, Ross initiated the Navy's manned balloon program, Project Strato-Lab, in 1954. The Strato-Lab program utilized the new plastic high-altitude balloons for upper atmosphere research. At this time, Ross became the first active duty military officer qualified and licensed as a free balloon pilot based solely on plastic balloon experience. Ross went on inactive duty in 1955 as a Lieutenant Commander (USNR). As a physicist in the Air Branch of the ONR, Ross specialized in the physics of the upper atmosphere and participated in Strato-Lab flights both as a civilian and as a naval officer. As the key participant in Project Strato-Lab, he spent more than 100 hours with scientists and other balloonists making observations in the stratosphere. At the time of the record-setting flight in 1961, Malcolm Ross was a Commander in the Naval Reserve.
In 1957, Ross received the Navy League's newly established Rear Admiral William S. Parsons Award for Scientific and Technical Progress, and the Navy's Meritorious Civilian Service Award. In 1958, jointly with Lieutenant Commander Lewis, he received the Harmon International Trophy (Aeronaut) for the November 8, 1956, record-breaking flight (see below). In 1962, jointly with Victor Prather, he received the Harmon Trophy again for the record-holding flight in 1961 to 21.5 miles (34.6 km). Ross never flew in balloons again after the 1961 flight, although he continued to advocate using balloons as relatively inexpensive platforms for scientific investigations.
Malcolm Ross retired from the US Naval Reserve as a captain on July 1, 1973. After leaving the Office of Naval Research, Malcolm Ross worked in space research at General Motors. Later on he became a stock brokerage executive for Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner and Smith, Inc. and served as assistant vice president and account executive at the Bloomfield Hills branch.
Malcolm Ross died at home in Birmingham, Michigan, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.