Viewport: See the World
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, November 2009
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the October/November 2009 issue of Air & Space.
Ten years ago, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones made the first nonstop balloon flight around the world. Their March 1999 voyage in the Breitling Orbiter 3 concluded an intense competition—there had been 21 attempts before their success—that had been brewing since the 1970s. Flown on the brink of the 21st century, their 19-day adventure joined a 216-year-old tradition with the marvels of modern technology. And it inspired the two pilots to create something good for the planet they had just circumnavigated.
The first balloon flights, in the 1780s, created a sensation in Europe; enormous crowds gathered to cheer the ascents, and the furnishings and fashions of the time reflect the enthusiasm for flight. At the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, we exhibit a large collection of 18th century consumer goods—chairs with backs carved into the shape of balloons; fans, vases, and textiles decorated with balloon motifs—that demonstrate the excitement people felt about getting off the ground (see In the Museum, June/July 2009). Ballooning awakened a spirit of optimism. We saw the same phenomenon in the 1920s, after Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight, and again in the 1960s, when spaceflight influenced everything from music to movies. Isn’t it interesting that humans reached the moon before they flew around the world in a balloon?
The basic system of dropping ballast to climb and venting gas to descend has not changed since the balloon’s invention. Even the design of the Breitling Orbiter 3’s envelope, mixing hot air and light gas, dates to the 1780s.
It’s the Breitling gondola, displayed in the Museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery, that shows how far flight had come since the 18th century. Made of a light but very strong composite of Kevlar and carbon fiber, the gondola was pressurized, as well as equipped with solar panels, rechargeable batteries, and satellite-based navigation equipment. But what made the round-the-world flight possible were advances in meteorology: Much of the time good forecasting enabled the pilots to ride the winds of the jet stream, traveling as fast as 185 mph.
After the Breitling balloonists returned home and had the chance to reflect on their adventure, they spoke about having a changed image of the world, a sentiment often expressed by astronauts, who also get to see the bigger picture. Piccard and Jones used the $1 million prize money to establish a foundation that finances efforts for the early detection and cure of disease among children in Africa.
To celebrate the flight’s 10th anniversary, the original sponsor, the Breitling watch company, has funded a world tour, featuring a hot-air replica of the Orbiter 3, which Brian Jones is flying to benefit the foundation.
The Breitling gondola reminds Museum visitors of one of aviation’s greatest adventures, and now of a great humanitarian cause.