Balloons to the Stars

by Jim Gormly, Staff Writer

Aviation is proof that given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible.
Eddie Rickenbacker (1890 – 1973)

On the morning of November 21, 1783, two Frenchmen, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes, became the first humans to slip the surly bonds of Earth and ride in a beautiful balloon lifted by hot air. For millennia, humans had gazed at birds in wonder and dreamed of flying, and on that morning the dream materialized. Aviation commenced as the two men took to the air for a short, five-mile hop across Paris.

Made of cloth and paper, the balloon was a creation of the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, prosperous owners of a paper manufacturing business – a high-tech industry in the 18th Century.­ The brothers had noticed that smoke rose, lifting pieces of paper, and they believed that some component of the smoke was responsible. When they experimented, they produced as much smoke as possible and, thinking they had discovered a new gas contained in smoke, unabashedly called it Montgolfier gas. Their claim was just a lot of hot air, of course, because it was just hot air, with a lower density than that of the surrounding atmosphere, that provided the buoyancy, and not the smoke, per se. The brothers were likely unaware that the Chinese had been using hot air for 2,000 years to send aloft small sky lanterns of paper and candles, though the Chinese never expanded the concept to lift a person.

Earlier that year, after hearing of experiments with no one aboard the “Montgolfier gas” balloons, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, still holding their heads high, asked the brothers to demonstrate their invention. The king offered prisoners as the first aeronauts, speculating that it might end badly, and hence, administer “justice” while breaking new ground, so to speak. To test the safety for living creatures at altitude, however, the brothers chose to use a duck, a rooster, and a sheep, on the presumption that the duck should have no problem, the rooster, although a bird, could never fly so high, and the sheep, because it was assumed to have a physiology like that of humans. A crowd of 130,000 people, including Benjamin Franklin, watched the balloon and its riders ascend and land safely two miles away. It was one small flight for a duck, one giant flight for sheepkind. The king was delighted, though he complained about the smoke. The brave nameless animals were given to the king for his menagerie, but I suspect that they soon became courses in a royal feast.

Thanks to the canard, coq au vin, and mutton pioneers, human flight subsequently took off, albeit slowly. However, the brothers seem to have lacked confidence in their own handiwork, as Jacques-Etienne’s only flight was in a balloon tethered to the ground, and no record exists of Joseph-Michel going aloft. By contrast, the Wright brothers made the first flight in a powered and controllable aircraft approximately 120 years later, and no rooster was in the cockpit. The Wright brothers not only created their flying machine, but they also believed in it enough to be the pilots themselves.

Time flies and so does progress. Fruit flies (no joke) became the first animals to leave Earth’s atmosphere (68 miles high), riding in a captured Nazi V-2 rocket and returning safely to Earth via a parachute in 1947. Later that year, Chuck Yeager became the first human to break the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 rocket plane. In 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, the first man-made device to orbit Earth, and a few weeks later, launched “Muttnik,” or Laika, a dog, as the first animal in orbit. Men walked on the Moon in 1969, and various Mars rovers and a helicopter are currently exploring the Red Planet. Meanwhile, less than 200 years after the first balloon flight, Voyager 1 was launched on its epic star trek. It has slipped the surly bonds of the solar system and reached interstellar space, going boldly where no man or woman has gone before. Now more than 14 billion miles from Earth and traveling at 38,000 mph relative to the Sun, Voyager 1 will be nearer to another star than it will be to the Sun in 40,000 years. Perhaps aviation has achieved the impossible.