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Oct. 23, 1934: Journey to the edge of space

  • Blog Post by: Ben Welter
  • October 16, 2010 - 6:19 PM
Seventy-six years ago this week, Jean and Jeannette Piccard rode their hydrogen balloon 57,579 feet into the stratosphere and onto the front pages of American newspapers. Their mission: to gather data on cosmic rays, using Geiger counters and other instruments aboard their pressurized magnesium-alloy gondola.
 
Jeannette, the first American woman to earn a balloon pilot’s license and the first woman to reach the stratosphere, guided the craft. Her husband, an organic chemist and aeronautical engineer, monitored the instruments. Along for the ride was Jean’s pet turtle, Fleur de Lys. The couple’s two sons – Don, 8, and Paul, 10 – were among the 45,000 spectators who witnessed the takeoff at the Ford Airport in Dearborn, Mich.
 
“I was nervous right after the take-off,” she told a United Press reporter. “The wind bumped the gondola around a great deal, but before long we began to ascend rapidly and when we got into the upper air it was very calm. We hardly seemed to be moving, but I guess that sometimes we must have been drifting at 90 miles an hour or more.”
 
Seven hours later, the craft landed safely, its instruments intact, in a tall elm tree near Cadiz, Ohio.
 
Don Piccard, now 84, lives in Minneapolis. An interview follows this Minneapolis Star account of his parents’ historic flight. 
 

Jean Piccard in the unfinished gondola in 1933. (Associated Press photo)

PICCARDS ON STRATO FLIGHT

PROFESSOR AND
WIFE STUDYING
UPPER AIR RAYS

Take-off at Dearborn,
Mich., Seek 60,000-
Foot Level
 
BAG’S EQUIPMENT
VALUED AT $25,000
 
Balloon Equipped With
Latest Safety
Devices
 
By United Press
 
Ford Airport, Dearborn, Mich., Oct. 23. – Prof. Jean Piccard and his wife, Jeannette, took off early today for the stratosphere and a study of the mysterious cosmic rays.
 
After the take-off, the balloon settled to earth despite throwing out of ballast, but attendants started it upward again and the huge bag then shot straight up.
 
The two Piccard children, Paul, 10, and Donald, 8, waved good bye to their parents at the take-off.
 
Bag Rises Rapidly
 
 
  A jubilant Jeannette Piccard beamed for the cameras after landing safely outside Cadiz, Ohio.
Their balloon rose rapidly, at the rate of about 30 miles an hour. At 10,000 feet the professor and his wife – former teacher and pupil – will close the trapdoor in their gondola. The balloon will continue to rise, they hope, until they have reached about 60,000 feet.
 
The couple was clad in winter clothing to keep them warm during the journey before sunrise, when they expect to drop to around 67 degrees below zero.
 
Last night and early today 750 tanks of hydrogen hissed their contents into the folds of the balloon until it towered 175 feet above the ground like a big gray top. The 120,000 cubic feet of gas inflated it to only one-fifth of capacity. Lower atmospheric pressure, miles above the earth, will permit the hydrogen to swell out the bag to its capacity of 600,000 cubic feet.
 
Elaborate Instruments
 
Prof. and Mrs. Piccard huddled in their little gondola, seven feet in diameter, with barely room to move, among the most elaborate array of instruments yet assembled for such a flight.
 
Most vital in the $25,000 worth of equipment were the 168 Geiger counters. Placed all around the black and white gondola to catch rays coming from all directions, the counters can register all rays and by means of radio tubes and photographic equipment record their direction and number.
 
The Piccards hope to rise to 40,000 feet without discharging much of their ballast. At that height they plan an intermediate stop to make the most thorough study of cosmic rays yet achieved. Then, with the aid of blasting caps they will release the rest of the ballast and rise to the maximum height, probably around 60,000 feet or more than 11 miles.
 
May Not See Earth
 
 
  Jean and Jeannette Piccard emerged from their gondola sometime after the landing. Their son Don suspects the photo was a posed one, taken hours later. (Photo courtesy San Diego Air and Space Museum)
At that height they would see the sky as a bluish-purple canopy, perhaps dotted faintly with a few stars. The sun would be a blazing orb, with none of the haze that surrounds it as seen through the heavier and dust-laden atmosphere close to earth.
 
They may not see the earth from that rainless, windless stratum because of clouds. However, an infrared camera which they carried may successfully pierce the haze and photograph the earth, many miles away.
 
A descent was planned for soon after noon. Should they start down too late, the gas might contract too rapidly as the sun sets and atmosphere cools. That would make the drop too swift for comfort or safety.
 
Precautions Taken
 
Special precautions have been taken to protect the balloon from accidents such as have marred previous adventures into the stratosphere. A ring was installed around the bottom of the bag to eliminate pleats as the gas expanded, to allow air to escape as the bag swells and to enter as the bag shrinks during the descent. Special emergency valves were installed to permit escape of the gas for descent in case the regular valve sticks or freezes.
 
Short wave radio sets were installed in the balloon and in the official car which will try to follow the course. They will use a wave length of five meters, 56 kilocycles, in attempting to keep in direct touch with the earth.
 
Before the flight, Jean Piccard took this photo of his wife, Jeannette, and the gondola that would carry them to a height of nearly 11 miles. (Photo courtesy Don Piccard)

MORE ON THE STORY: After completing their historic flight, Jean and Jeannette Piccard sought work at major universities, hoping to parlay their success into teaching and research positions. In 1936, Jean joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota's Department of Aeronautical Engineering and the family settled in  Minneapolis. He taught classes, conducted research and continued to play a key role in historic balloon flights. He retired in 1952.
A "Star Trek" character, Jean-Luc Picard, was named in honor of Jean and his twin brother, Auguste, a pioneering air and deep-sea explorer.
Jeannette, who already had a master's degree in organic chemistry from the University of Chicago, earned a doctorate in education from the U in 1942. After Jean's death in 1963, she worked as a NASA consultant, speaking to the scientific community and the public about the space program during the Apollo years. In 1974, at age 79, she was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, fulfilling a lifelong dream. It was another pioneering effort: The church did not open the priesthood to women until 1976 – and did not recognize her ordination until 1977. She served as a priest in St. Paul until her death in 1981.
Don Piccard, the 8-year-old son mentioned in the third paragraph of the wire account above, lives in Minneapolis in the home where he was raised. Now 84, he is recognized as the “father of modern hot-air ballooning.” “I didn't invent the hot-air balloon,” he explains. “I figured out how to use it,” perfecting flight techniques that had eluded hot-air balloonists for more than a century.
 
  Don Piccard
During World War II, he served in the Navy as a balloon and airship rigger. He helped found the Balloon Club of America in 1948 and eventually began building balloons and promoting the new sport. He appeared on “The Johnny Carson Show” in the 1960s after taking Carson on his first balloon flight. As owner of Don Piccard Balloons, he's still active in the sport, flying as often as he can. “I had a nice flight in Topeka two weeks ago,” he says. “I don't really fly often enough, but it is an expensive hobby.”
More than 75 years after his parents flew to the edge of space, Don remembers some arresting details from that October night: His parents wore tweed jackets and pants. They brought along black tea and angel food cake and rosin and matches. Don recalls being slightly jealous of his dad's pet turtle, Fleur de Lys. “I believe I wanted to go along instead of the turtle,” he says.
He recalls the height his parents achieved that night as easily you might remember your first phone number. “57,679 feet,” he says. “I think they were planning to go a little higher [to surpass a record set the year before]. But they wanted to reserve ballast and maintain control and not lose the product of their flight, the scientific instruments.” Though not recognized formally, because a man was on board, it was a record height for a woman, unsurpassed until Valentina Tereshkova orbited the earth in Vostok 6 in June 1963.
One thing he doesn't recall about that night: fear.
“I had no fear or trepidation or worry about my folks,” he says. “They'd been in a balloon before. My father was very safety conscious. As an explosives expert, he was extremely detail-oriented.”
When he learned of his parents' safe landing the next day, at the home of a family friend in Dearborn, he doesn't recall feeling relief. “I was surprised they were in Ohio,” he says. “I would have thought Pennsylvania or New Jersey.”
Has Don, a pioneering hot-air balloonist who has flown to great heights himself, ever dreamed of space travel?
“In orbit? No, I've never wanted to do that,” he says. “It's not my expertise. It's extremely dangerous, and I don't know of any personal benefit I would gain from it.”

 

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