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Looking Back...

Paul Sorenson Director of Communications Institute of Technology


On a cool, clear Michigan morning in October 1934, Jean and Jeanette Piccard stepped inside the pressurized, air tight gondola of a balloon named Century of Progress and launched themselves into history, soaring to a record atitude of 57,979 feet.

The flight, piloted by Jeannette Piccard, proved that humans could tolerate ascents into the frigid stratosphere with gondolas and balloons designed to withstand the low pressures of the atmosphere’s isothermal layer. The technology, developed by Jean and his twin brother, Auguste, laid the groundwork for manned space flights decades later.

Launching a hydrogen-filled cellophane balloon June 24, 1936
One of Dr. Jean Piccard’s first projects at the University was constructing an unmanned hydrogen-filled transparent cellophane balloon for ascents 10 to 14 miles into the stratosphere. The balloon was successfully flown on June 24, 1936.

Jean Piccard joined the University of Minnesota faculty in 1936. He taught courses in stratospheric flight problems while doing research and conducting many pioneering balloon flights. One of his first projects at the University was the construction of an unmanned hydrogen-filled transparent cellophane balloon designed for ascents 10 to 14 miles into the stratosphere. (The balloon’s panels were held together by a revolutionary product — adhesive-coated cellophane strips called Scotch transparent tape.) The balloon was launched from Memorial Stadium in 1936. It rose more than 50,000 feet and traveled nearly 600 miles, landing in a field in Arkansas. He later devised the multiple-balloon concept and in 1937 made the first manned ascent utilizing multiple balloons.

Although Auguste remained in Switzerland, he and Jean continued to collaborate throughout their careers. Their work led to the development of a frost-resistant window for high-altitude balloon gondolas and an electronic system for emptying ballast bags. Jean also experimented with plastic balloons and helped design the high-altitude polyethylene balloons that the United States Air Force used for manned flights of up to 100,000 feet.

J.F. Piccard
J.F. Piccard preparing for a balloon launch

Jeannette Piccard was at her husband’s side through it all. In a 1966 interview, she described how she became involved in the pioneering research. “My husband needed a balloon pilot, so I went out and learned how to pilot a balloon. I didn’t have to be convinced. I don’t know if it was his idea or my idea or just spontaneous combustion. It was something that was obvious, that’s all.”

With that, she became the first licensed female balloonist in the world and the first woman to ascend into the stratosphere. She continued to collaborate with her husband until his death in 1963, after which she became a consultant to NASA’s manned spacecraft division. A decade later, in 1974, she gained notoriety as one of the first women ordained as an Episcopalian priest. She died in 1981.

This summer, Jean and Jeannette Piccard were posthumously inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamagordo, New Mexico, in recognition of their lifetime achievements in aeronautics. Earlier this year, their son, Donald, was recognized by the National Aeronautic Association for his work in establishing hot-air ballooning as a serious sport in the 1960s.

Donald Piccard rode alongside his mother during several flights in the 1930s. In 1966 she described those flights and the wonder and awe with which she and Jean approached their work: “When you fly a balloon you don’t file a flight plan; you go where the wind goes. You feel like part of the air. You almost feel like part of eternity, and you just float along.”

— Paul Sorenson

Special Note: Special Note: Bertrand Piccard, who is the great nephew of Dr. Jean F. Piccard, successfully circled the world in a balloon this past March, along with his co-pilot Brian Jones. He had tried this in 1997 and 1998, but his balloons fell short of their destination. He is a third-generation adventurer. Betrand Piccard's grandfather was Auguste Piccard, who was the twin brother to Jean Piccard. Bertrand's father Jacques was a noted underseas explorer.

UofM, Institute of Technology >  AEM Home >  Information and News >  AEM Update > 1998-99 Table of Contents > Looking Back...