One hundred fifteen years ago today, on July 11, 1897, engineers S.A. Andrée and Knut Fraenkel and photographer Nils Strindberg set off to reach the North Pole by balloon. They were never seen again. As Alec Wilkinson writes in The Ice Balloon (Knopf, 2012):
Before the twentieth century, more than a thousand people tried to reach the North Pole, and according to an accounting made by an English journalist in the 1930s, at least 751 of them died. Only Andrée used a balloon. He had left on a blustery afternoon from Dane’s Island, in the Spitsbergen archipelago, six hundred miles from the pole. It took an hour for the balloon, which was a hundred feet tall, to disappear from the view of the people who were watching from the shore—carpenters, technicians, members of the Swedish navy who had assisted in the weeks leading up to the launch.
Two years of planning had led Andrée to predict that he would arrive at the pole in about forty-three hours. Having crossed it, he would land, maybe six days later, in Asia or Alaska, depending on the winds, and walk to civilization if he had to. Ideally, he said, and perhaps disingenuously, he would descend in San Francisco. To meet the dignitaries who would be waiting for him, he brought a tuxedo.
Every newspaper of substance in Europe and North America carried word of his leaving. The headline on the front page of the New York Times said, “Andrée Off for the Pole.” A British military officer called the voyage ‘The most original and remarkable attempt ever made in Arctic exploration.’ For novelty and daring, the figure to whom he was most often compared was Columbus.
Then, having crossed the horizon, he vanished, the first person to disappear into the air.
Andrée believed he could “sail” the balloon using a drag-rope technique; while most historians feel the technique wouldn’t have worked, it’s a moot point: the drag-ropes were pulled from the balloon just minutes after launching. Two days later, clouds and fog forced the balloon down to the ice pack; the men were grounded. They set out—shivering in their wool coats and carrying crates of champagne and cans of sausages—across the ice, toward a cache of food at Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land.
They never made it. By October all three were dead, probably from hypothermia and dehydration. It wasn’t until 33 years later, in August 1930, that the men of the Bratvaag Expedition (studying the glaciers of the Svalbard archipelago) found the remains of the Andrée expedition. Escorted by five destroyers and five airplanes, the men’s bodies were returned to Stockholm on October 5, 1930.