They met in Chicago. Jean Piccard was a highly esteemed professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago. Graduate student Jeannette Ridlon was a chemistry major. Their love of science brought them together. Their love for each other changed history.

Jean was the twin brother of physicist Auguste Piccard. They had been born just across the border from Germany, in Basel, Switzerland, in 1884, in the middle of the Belle Époque. This was a time of dizzying advances in both physics and chemistry, and the Piccard brothers entered their chosen fields at the same time that Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and Pierre and Marie Curie were introducing groundbreaking theories and processes. If science was the new religion, then Auguste and Jean qualified as members of the new priesthood. Yet the twins had another passion they indulged.

L. Frank Baum’s fanciful novel had introduced to the world the mighty wizard who had ascended to a land of witches and Emerald cities, and exerted his power through a clever manipulation of propaganda and technology. But his origins were far more true-to-life than that of a balloonist blown off course by a Kansas twister. At least since the mythical Daedalus and his willful son, Icarus, had tried to escape Crete on wings of wax and feathers, man had dreamed of breaking free of the Earth. However, it was not until 1783, when Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes successfully flew in the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon above France that the dream had become reality. In the century since, man had associated flight with these majestically shaped inflatables carrying fragile baskets suspended from ropes. For travel between specific locations, they were decidedly unreliable. But attached to the ground, they made wonderful observation platforms (as in the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War). And, of course, if one’s goal was simply to go “up,” then the possibilities were apparently limitless. The first serious attempt was conducted in 1875 by three intrepid Frenchmen, Henri Sivel, Croce-Spinelli, and Gaston Tissandier, only one of whom survived to tell the tale. The freezing temperatures and the lack of oxygen put these first aeronauts in a hellish situation. Conditions well known today had yet to be discovered. It was their misfortune, and their glory, to be the first. Manned balloons had been in existence since the latter half of the eighteenth century, but they were frustratingly fickle. They went wherever the wind took them. Controlled flight in a horizontal direction eluded the best minds in aviation for decades. Over time, ballooning “aeronauts” ascended higher and higher into the sky. With the advent of the altimeter, these pioneers were able to confirm and document the heights they had reached. But one thing soon became evident. There was a ceiling on what the human body could withstand in terms of temperature and the thinness of the air. Oxygen deprivation* makes the mind do strange things. To ascend further than five miles would require a new approach. This intrigued the young brothers from Switzerland. For them, science was not merely proofs written in chalk on blackboards or test tubes filled with liquid substances in laboratories; it involved interacting with the physical world and taking personal risks. Over time, their quest would absorb more and more of their time and thinking.

It all began in the pristine Alpine world of their childhood, a time and a place of wonder and discovery that their parents urged them to explore and understand. This approach to life and learning, first developed in mountain meadows and lakes, would ultimately take them into outer space.


Auguste and Jean Piccard were born identical twins. It’s a curious relationship, one that only identical twins themselves truly understand. They have a bond that transcends the physical—the shared DNA—and speaks to the soul. At its most extreme, it’s as if two persons are, in fact, one. And rather than seeing them as “half” of something, it might be more accurate to say it doubles the potency. All of their lives, Auguste and Jean would support each other. Petty sibling rivalries didn’t mar their relationship, their work, or their collaboration. This is a crucial point when considering their separate attempts to reach the stratosphere in the 1930s. They were not competitors; they had each other’s backs.1

As youths, the twins’ education included an immersion in the natural world. For their parents, Jules and Hélène Piccard, science was not divorced from an appreciation for beauty, or moral and ethical considerations. Once, on a hike with their sister Marie, older brother Paul, and their parents, lugging their father’s cumbersome photographic equipment, they encountered a mountain meadow full of wildflowers:

The field in front of them slanted upward. It was a flaming carpet of rich gold, touched with flashes of white and deep, brilliant blue. They all stood silent before its beauty . . . “Remember to pick only one of each kind,” said their mother. “We must leave such beauty for others to enjoy too.”2

Like Hugo Eckener, out alone on the Baltic in his sailboat, the Piccard boys were encouraged to take risks and practice self-reliance. On holiday in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino as adolescents, Auguste and Jean had taken a rowboat, painted blue, out on Lake Maggiore to visit the ruins of an infamous pirates’ castle. This picturesque Alpine lake is quite large, and taking a small boat out on its waters to row eleven miles across the Italian border to the “island” took stamina and nerve. The ruins didn’t disappoint. One of the outstanding characteristics of the Piccards was that as much as they would become men of science, they were also men of adventure. Seeing the tumbled stones of the bandits’ lair from which they had spread terror among the good citizens living along the shores of Lake Maggiore, generated a thrill in the boys along with quiet thoughts of a time many centuries past.

The scent of adventure resulted in the boys crossing from the lake’s western shore to an Italian village on its eastern shore. But once they had reached the midway point, the Alpine wind began to churn the lake from placid calm to turbulent and wave-filled. They pulled for the far side, but within sight of land, they realized there were only jagged rocks to welcome them. As the next wave crested, Jean caught a glimpse of a narrow shingle of sand. He told his brother to pull hard right; “Auguste heard and obeyed. He knew there must be some reason for Jean’s directions. Both boys pulled with all their might against the heavy waves. . . . It was going to take very careful calculations indeed to bring the boat into shore at just the right moment.”3 This combination of physical hardiness, courage, and cool-headedness under pressure would become a defining characteristic of the two brothers in the years and decades to come.

They made it through the rocks. The local villagers, unbeknownst to the boys, had witnessed the suspense-filled final act of their crossing of the lake. They rushed to see if they’d come through safe, unbelieving when the Piccards told them they had crossed all the way from the other side in waters that rough. They insisted that the boys stay the night as guests of the entire village. But Auguste and Jean had a dinner date with their family back up the lake in Locarno. When the winds died down and the lake’s surface returned to its previous calm, they put their blue boat back into the water and, over the protestations of the villagers, rowed north. Their close call with danger in no way diminished their confidence in their ability to reach their family, as long as the weather held. It did.

As a man of science, Jules Piccard encouraged Auguste and Jean to conduct experiments and take ownership of their learning. The only way to truly learn was to do it for oneself. This ad hoc process involved dead ends and messes, as well as occasional gratifying proof of success. And there was their common fascination with ballooning. It was a barnstorming Swiss aeronaut that first lit the spark that would inspire the twins to marry their love of science (physics, chemistry) with their imaginations.

Eduard Spelterini* must have seemed a veritable Wizard of Oz to the two young boys the first time their father took them to see him “ascend” into the skies over Basel. He returned a few years later and his feats inspired Auguste and Jean to create their own first crude gas balloons for themselves.

The Piccards were certainly not alone in their fascination with flight. The Swiss, in general, were keen on aviation. In fact, in 1905, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale was formed with its headquarters in nearby Lausanne, Switzerland. The FAI would become the foremost aviation/aeronautical organization in the world—the arbiter of world records and the standards by which they were measured. Like their Italian contemporary, Italo Balbo, the Piccards came of age in a time when aviation was constantly being pushed ever onward and upward. But at that time, it was in no way clear that the twin brothers would one day achieve aeronautical feats worthy of notice by the FAI. They had to earn a living, for one thing. A career in the classroom, or in the laboratory, seemed natural enough paths. But the sky was never far from their minds. They had “the bug.” There is no doubt about it. Whether they would ever be able to act on it in a serious manner was the question.

Ultimately, Auguste and Jean would attend university together at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and pursue their individual scientific interests in physics and chemistry, respectively. But as rigorous as their studies were, the twins couldn’t help playing pranks on unsuspecting residents in, what was for them, a new city. Years later, one prank in particular could still elicit side-splitting bouts of laughter.

Auguste and Jean had let their hair grow quite long and it was clearly time to pay the barber a visit. But Jean had an idea, a very funny idea. He went by himself, and after striking up a conversation with the barber, he explained how his hair grew incredibly fast. The barber assured him that when he was done, Jean would like the results. To this Jean replied, “It looks all right now.”4 The next day, of course, Auguste walked in with a mass of hair on his head, to the jaw-dropping astonishment of the barber!

Jean stood out at the Institute. In 1909 he received his doctoral degree, and was also recognized with a special silver medal for his work in chemical compounds. His work on their color and composition, and his observation that “certain types of molecules split apart in solution,”5 led to his thesis being commonly referred to as the “Piccard effect” in chemistry textbooks. Offered a teaching post in Munich, Jean Piccard left his Swiss home and parted ways with his twin brother. In Munich, Jean worked with Nobel Laureate Alfred von Baeyer. The outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914, however, forced Jean to return to Switzerland to avoid being called to serve in the Kaiser’s army. As a member of the faculty in Munich he had been required to take an oath to Imperial Germany, and what had once seemed pro forma now carried the potential for quite serious consequences. An opportunity to teach in Lausanne, not far from home, decided the issue. Beyond his homeland’s borders, World War I raged. The Piccard brothers adhered to their mountain country’s policy of strict neutrality. When one considers the slaughter of the trenches on the nearby Western Front—the senseless attacks ordered by distant commanders—they probably did well to steer clear of it.

The seeds planted by Eduard Spelterini also began to bear fruit in the years just before, and during, the war. Auguste Piccard had visited Paris in 1912 to assist with the start of the Gordon Bennett Cup (a distance competition, and one that often proved deadly). The competition itself interested him very little, but the magnificent balloons themselves, straining at their tethers, interested him a great deal. By September of that year, he had made his first solo ascent. The following year (1913) he was joined by Jean in a sixteen-hour flight from Zurich over Germany and France. It must have been a realization of all of their boyhood hopes: “Just like Spelterini!”6 During the war years, both Auguste and Jean served in the Swiss Army’s “lighter-than-air” service but were officially barred from active service in balloons, instead being assigned the role of “civilian advisors.” Their prodigious height was deemed too tall for a gondola! Considering future events, this determination was rich in irony.

And then a new opportunity unexpectedly presented itself. Jean had been invited to visit the United States and teach in Chicago. To leave a continent locked in its death throes, cross an ocean, and visit a giant new land called America—well, this must have been quite something. He had his doubts—which he confided to Auguste—but in the end he chose the bold course. It would change his life forever.

Arriving in the United States (then still at peace with the warring powers in Europe) in 1916, Jean Piccard was presented with a whole new world. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for the frantic pace and intimidating size and scope of cities such as New York and Chicago. But he took to it.


Swiss “aeronauts”: Jean Piccard (left) with his brother Auguste (right) during World War I. Note how tall each of them are—six feet, six inches, in fact.

The scale of the country also made a deep impression on him (as it would on Italo Balbo later on). Traveling from the Eastern Seaboard to the West Coast, Jean Piccard absorbed America in a way now lost to most Americans themselves in the age of jet travel: the freedom, its raw beauty, the flora and fauna (he delighted in the natural wonders of Yosemite National Park, for instance). Back in Chicago, he gained an intimidating reputation as a brilliant but somewhat impatient professor. The University of Chicago was fast becoming one of the most prestigious research universities in the United States. Teaching on Chicago’s South Side, at a university generously primed with Rockefeller money, was a plum position for the young Swiss professor. If one could drown out the grim news of the war in France (the United States had entered the conflict in April 1917) and avoid the deadly hand of the influenza pandemic sweeping the land, life was good. His graduate students were co-ed and eager, if a little scared of him. One of them was named Jeannette Ridlon.


Jeannette Ridlon was born in Chicago (two years after the first great Chicago World’s Fair) in 1895 to a well-to-do family. Her father was a respected medical doctor. Like Jean and his brother Auguste, Jeannette and her sister Beatrice were identical twins. It’s remarkable if one stops and considers for a moment this fact. But the story had a different arc. Unlike the Piccard boys who grew up inseparable, sharing adventures near their home in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, conducting ad hoc experiments, and, predictably, playing pranks, Jeannette and Beatrice would have less time together. Tragedy intervened when the young sisters were growing up in Chicago. At the age of three, Beatrice suffered severe burns while playing with a toy stove, and died. Jeannette witnessed the horrible accident, and would be haunted by it for the rest of her life.7 Even after Beatrice was buried, Jeannette said, “She never felt alone.”8 The loss of a twin is different than the loss of a brother or a sister born separately. Part of one’s self, one’s soul, is amputated. Beatrice’s ghost was tangible in a way that few could understand. Jean, however, was better equipped to understand.

It was the fathers in both Jean’s and Jeannette’s lives that would shape their course and their characters. Jean’s father was a man of science; Jean-nette’s father was a man of medicine. Both men actively encouraged their children to learn for themselves, question everything, push limits (whether personal or societal), and be brave. In Jeannette’s case, growing up in the shadow of the Victorian Age, there was the added burden of her gender, which her father refused to impose as a restraint on her ambitions. At the age of eleven Jeannette announced to her mother that she wanted to become an Episcopal priest. Aghast, her mother fled the room. But her father took her seriously. This same seriousness of purpose was exercised by the Piccard twins’ father. If his youthful sons were to undertake an endeavor, he treated them as persons worthy of sober discussion and careful scrutiny. This base, laid down by these two progressive-minded men, empowered their children to move forward when others might dismiss them. It was a gift that led to greatness.

Jeannette grew up at a time when the expectations American women had for their lives were changing. The opportunity to attend college, pursue a profession, and, ultimately, to vote and take part fully in public life, were her lived experience.

She pursued her bachelor of arts degree at the exclusive Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia during the war, with a double major in philosophy and psychology. Unsurprisingly, in 1916 she wrote a paper entitled, “Should Women Be Admitted to the Anglican Church?” Her answer was a decided “Yes.” Upon graduating in 1918, Jeannette returned to her native Chicago and enrolled at the University of Chicago. Demonstrating the breadth of her interests and the intellectual versatility of a true Renaissance woman, she began her pursuit of a master of science degree in chemistry. It was this love of learning, inculcated by her father, that ultimately placed her in a classroom where a tall, distracted, and eccentrically handsome Swiss professor, whose father had also inculcated a love of learning, was lecturing.

Years later, Jeannette Ridlon Piccard shared with her granddaughter, Mary Louise, what her first encounter with Jean Piccard had been like: “I was walking up a flight of stairs, and stopped on a landing—I looked up and saw the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life.”9

One can well imagine her shock—and her delight—when the object of her appreciation turned out to be one of her new professors. His reputation preceded him, and Jeannette did all she could to avoid a one-on-one discussion with this brilliant, “beautiful,” but intimidating man. She made a point of staying out of his line of sight. Later she confided to him: “When the big double doors to the graduate lab opened and you rushed in, I would watch. If you went to the left, I would go to the right and slip quietly out the door. If you went to the right, I would go to the left behind the desks and slip out that way.”10 Finally, on November 11, 1918, something remarkable happened that finally broke the ice between Jeannette and Jean. The war was over! Professor Piccard, grasping the significance of the moment, told his students working in the laboratory to drop whatever they were doing. He


Jeannette Ridlon, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania (1914). Courtesy of the Shipley School.

was still youthful enough himself to organize the occasional social outing. And this occasion certainly called for one. A favorite activity was to picnic on the dunes along Lake Michigan. They stopped at a deli for sandwiches and something to drink. Jeannette Ridlon came along too, to celebrate the end of the war and the Allied victory. Somewhere between the chalkboard and the sand, a romance blossomed. Seven months later, on August 19, 1919, Jeannette Ridlon and Jean Piccard were married, and immediately set off for his native Switzerland to start their new life together.

As their ship left the harbor, heading toward the Atlantic, the two newlyweds reminisced about the fall of 1918 when Jeannette was too intimidated to face Jean one on one. She recalled the first time she decided to face him. He recalled how she held the desk tightly with both hands, refusing to be intimidated . . . being brave. He reflected, “I’m glad you were. I hope from now on you will always be brave enough to stand your ground and keep from running away. I hope you will be brave enough to come with me anywhere.”11

These years were fruitful ones for Jean and Jeannette. Both taught at the University of Lausanne until Jeannette became pregnant with the first of their three sons. Motherhood was a full-time occupation in that period of her life. Meanwhile, Jean pursued a successful career as a world-renowned chemist: first in Lausanne, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He encouraged the same combination of physicality and intellectual vigor in his sons that his father had instilled in him. Visitors remarked how he glowed in the rough but affectionate play of his boys (even as they at one point poured a box of cornflakes on his head). But he also was keenly following developments in balloon technology that promised to lead one day to an attempt to reach the stratosphere. And it was his twin brother, Auguste Piccard, that would take the lead in going where no man had gone before.


Auguste Piccard had also left Switzerland, in 1922, to teach at the Université libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels, Belgium). In 1920, he had married the daughter of a French professor of history who taught at the Sorbonne in Paris. Her name was Marianne. They would have four daughters and a son. Like his brother, Jean, Auguste Piccard inspired in his students a respect for his genius. But he also became a popular figure on campus, someone who enjoyed the interplay between subject, professor, and student. His lectures were well attended.* But he was no prima donna. Auguste Piccard was genuine, and this was largely the secret of his great appeal among students. Students can sense when a professor or teacher isn’t genuine. With Piccard it was never about him; it was about the subject—and on an even deeper level, it was about a profound faith in science. As Tom Cheshire, in his excellent three-part biography of the Piccard family, explained:

Piccard was always calculating, secure in the belief, common to the age, in the supremacy of scientific technique: everything, if you worked through it well enough, could be explained. His response to any problem was to start inscribing calculations in his notebook, earning him the nickname of the “extra decimal point.”12

Auguste unwittingly became the model for the character Professor Calculus in the popular “Tintin” books by Hergé. Tall, wearing high, old-fashioned collars, outwardly seemingly distracted but in fact intently focused on how best to achieve solutions to seemingly intractable problems, “the Professor” cut quite a figure.

Comic books aside, Auguste Piccard’s contributions to physics were not inconsiderable. Albert Einstein had been one of his examiners when he successfully presented his doctoral thesis in 1914. His work on the magnetocaloric effect “opened the way into research on superconductors,”13 and his hypothesis on a third radioactive body ultimately led to the isolation of U-235, used in the creation of the first nuclear weapons. In 1926, Auguste again went aloft in a balloon christened the Helvetia (after his native land) in order to take measurements on the speed of light at higher altitudes. This was crucial in proving that Einstein’s theory of relativity—according to which the speed of light was constant—was in fact correct. He was among those invited to attend the now famous Solvay Conference in 1927, which was particularly influential in the development of quantum theory and notable for the arguments between Albert Einstein on the one hand, and Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg on the other. Einstein’s theories, of course, had posited that there should be evidence of cosmic radiation (or “rays”) beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. But as yet no human being had reached the stratosphere to measure this in person. It’s fairly clear that during this time, Auguste Piccard began to see how his passion (ballooning) might be married to his profession (physics) to potentially important effect.

In 1930, Auguste Piccard had built a pressurized spherical gondola or “capsule” made of aluminum. Piccard didn’t drink, but it was partly the new pressurized vats for making beer that inspired the capsule design.14 Small windows would enable the capsule’s inhabitants to observe the stratosphere, the Earth below, and the stars embedded in the inky black void above. This spherical capsule would need to protect those inside from the thin air and cold temperatures of “outer space” as Auguste intended to ascend to the stratosphere and obtain definitive evidence that cosmic rays did indeed exist. The king of Belgium had created a fund for scientific research, the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique, and Piccard secured 500,000 Belgian francs from it toward construction of a hydrogen-filled balloon and the spherical gondola. The latter would be the first of its kind—essentially, a “space capsule.” As Tom Cheshire explained, the logic of the sphere—over an oblong gondola, for instance—is that it “offered the maximum volume for the smallest surface area.”15 Again, it was the math.


The 1927 Solvay Conference (note Einstein seated center front; Auguste Piccard standing at top left).

Of course, at the altitudes Piccard intended to reach, any leak in the gondola could prove fatal. The usual sand or water ballast taken on by a conventional balloonist wouldn’t work in the sphere either (there simply wasn’t room), so more dense lead pellets, as fine as grains of sand, were substituted. Poured through a tap inside the capsule, these were then sealed in a separate airtight intermediate compartment before being jettisoned by a second tap on the outside of the sphere. The gigantic balloon (with a volume of 14,130 cubic meters*) would expand as it ascended due to the decrease in atmospheric pressure—thus, not reaching its full awe-inspiring size until it was in the stratosphere itself. It would be a giant gas-filled sphere holding aloft a tiny aluminum sphere under its belly. With an eye for promotion, Piccard christened the gas bag and the capsule the FNRS, the acronym of his sponsor.

On May 27, 1931 (two years to the day before the opening of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair), Auguste Piccard and his fellow aeronaut, Paul Kipfer, took off from Augsburg, Germany and ascended 51,775 feet (nearly ten miles) into the sky. The ground crew (always crucial in any aeronautical endeavor) had made what turned out to be a crucial error: attaching an additional rope securing the sphere to the balloon, which in turn blocked the valve that allowed those within the sphere to release hydrogen gas to descend. In addition, a strong gust of wind had knocked the gondola around just before takeoff, damaging it sufficiently to create a small, slow leak. Neither of these dangers was readily apparent when Piccard and Kipfer began their ascent . . . but the seriousness of the low whistling sound that reached their ears became apparent soon after. Rather than abort the mission—which, unbeknownst to them, was not possible due to the blocked valve—Piccard had the presence of mind to stop up the leak with a mixture of Vaseline and tow. It worked, temporarily. On they shot upward. In less than half an hour they had reached the bottom of the stratosphere, and continued to ascend. They were now higher than any human beings had ever been.

The press was keen on following the spectacle, both from the ground and in hired aircraft following the course of the FNRS as it was carried first west, then southeast toward the Austrian Alps. This interest resulted from a mix of equal parts genuine interest in science/exploration and grim fascination with the grisly fate that might await the hero-aeronauts. A few years earlier, a U.S. Army officer named Hawthorne Gray had ascended to what was then a record height of 42,470 feet in a balloon with an open gondola. The instruments that the vessel was carrying confirmed his achievement, but the gondola returned to earth with a corpse aboard, as the elements and the altitude had done their work on the pilot. Albert Einstein had urged Auguste Piccard to think of his wife and children. What would they do if he didn’t return alive?

At 51,775 feet, the two aeronauts allowed themselves a momentary pause to observe the Earth and outer space from their tiny windows. It must have been an awe-inspiring moment. They were the first humans to see the curvature of our planet. What they witnessed stunned them. Piccard later described how “It (the Earth) seemed a flat disk with an upturned edge.”16 He later admitted his attempt to describe the color of the stratosphere eluded his limited ability to convey the qualities of color. But then there was the business at hand: taking measurements (the whole raison d’être for ascending in the first place, mind you), thinking about the descent (how and where to land safely), and rationing the supply of precious oxygen they had brought aboard until they could open the hatches and breathe fresh air at lower altitudes. Meanwhile, the sun’s rays on one end of the sphere raised the temperature to uncomfortably hot while on the other end it was freezing cold. And the ground crew had thoughtlessly left them with an insufficient supply of fresh water. Before long they were collecting condensation from inside the walls of the sphere’s frozen side to supplement what little they had to drink. Then it was time to begin their descent. They tried to open the valve that released the gas from the balloon, but it wouldn’t budge.

As evening began to descend across Europe, cooler air would contract the hydrogen gas inside the balloon, and it would eventually return to Earth on its own. But how long would this take? Could Piccard and Kipfer hold out long enough to avert death through lack of oxygen, thirst, cold? Piccard’s initial calculations inside the capsule estimated it would take fifteen days for the balloon to land—and fortunately, in this instance, his calculations were incorrect. The rate of descent from the stratosphere did not remain steady but accelerated as the balloon descended further toward the Earth’s surface. Soon they crossed 33,700 feet in altitude, leaving the stratosphere above them. At 15,000 feet Piccard deemed it safe enough to open the small hatches in the capsule and to stick their heads out to gulp lungfuls of fresh air. But the view rapidly coming to meet them from below was, though breathtakingly beautiful, decidedly ominous. The magnificent, jagged Austrian Alps could be the end of them, and they knew it.

As the FNRS descended, it was being closely followed by those on the ground, most of whom suspected the aeronauts within were dead. The initial plan had called for a midday landing, but now darkness was setting in and God only knew on what rock the capsule would finally come to rest. In the Inn River Valley, locals spotted an object in the sky. Tom Cheshire’s description of the object captures the wonder inherent in that moment: “a little moon, a tiny crescent, which had a halo: the F.N.R.S., still reflecting the sun’s rays, was brilliantly illuminated against the dark sky, the celestial chariot hitched to a falling star.”17

But this was no falling star. The aeronauts’ descent proved perilous. As they reconnoitered the unpromising terrain below, they noted a giant field of ice that might do. Piccard pulled the rip cord, immediately emptying the balloon of all of its remaining hydrogen gas. This was it! Their capsule rolled, skidded, and bounced to a halt in the middle of the night atop a glacier. Trying to make it down off the glacier at night was a non-starter. So the two hungry, shivering men huddled together for warmth under the deflated balloon fabric and waited for morning. Unbeknownst to them, a team of crack Austrian alpine troops had been sent to retrieve them (or their bodies). In the morning, as Piccard and Kipfer descended the glacier toward civilization, the mountaineers passed them on the way to the empty capsule!

A Pathé film of Piccard in the Austrian village that he and Kipfer reached later that morning shows a vigorous, self-possessed man at the height of his powers and the summit of personal fame. He looks comfortable with it.18

The outside world wanted to know what this Columbus/Lazarus of the stratosphere had to say. His first thought was for his wife, Marianne, to let her know he was well and had reached his destination. The world press was ravenous for details of the flight—the extent to which Piccard and Kipfer had been in dire peril. What had it looked like up there? What had been learned? Then, and now, aviation and science writers have debated the merits of Piccard’s achievement. Detractors claim that the measurements he had taken could have been obtained using unmanned balloons; that he was lucky not to have died, and taken Kipfer with him; that it was more about the personal satisfaction he took from going higher than any human had gone before—and doing it in a craft he had designed himself. These are fair criticisms. On the other hand, the observations Piccard and Kipfer made could not have been made by an unmanned balloon. The aeronaut was also pushing the limits of what humans and human technology could do. This last point is vital. Piccard was going where no man had gone before, and showing the way for others to follow. This has been our path since the days we danced around fires and barked at the moon. Progress has taken us from primitive existence to civilization—but it didn’t simply happen as some sort of inevitable, natural process. Auguste Piccard was, and is, a model of someone who was curious about the universe, talented enough to devise solutions to satisfy that curiosity, and bold enough to do it himself at great personal risk. This is why he matters.

When Auguste returned to Belgium, he found himself a celebrity. But as previously mentioned, not all of the notoriety was welcome, or kind. Albert Einstein congratulated him on his achievement, but tried to extract (successfully, or so he thought) a pledge from Piccard not to repeat his stratospheric ascent. He initially consented, but the critical characterization of Piccard as some sort of madcap daredevil scientist whose accomplishment was a lucky anomaly rankled. The following year, on August 18, 1932, Auguste Piccard entered the FNRS capsule for a second ascent to the stratosphere. It’s now clear that Piccard wanted to demonstrate that what he was doing—or something like it—would seem normal in a short time to come. The madcap daredevil characterization needed to be dispelled once and for all. He was a man of science, and science would lead to innovations that would improve travel to outer space. This second attempt, with fellow aeronaut Max Cosyns, would do much to achieve this end. For one thing, the ground crew was more thorough and more thoroughly coordinated with the aeronauts inside the capsule. Compared to the first danger-filled ascent in 1931, the 1932 ascent was a “cakewalk.” This was exactly what Piccard had intended—to make it look easy—which it most certainly was not. He broke his own altitude record, ascending to 55,152 feet. The FNRS was equipped this time with a transmitter, allowing Piccard to broadcast a brief radio message back to Earth.*

The balloon ultimately came down in much the same rather rough-and-tumble manner as in 1931, this time near Lake Garda in Italy. Piccard and Cosyns collected themselves and set to on a can of peaches they had brought along. This was supplemented by villagers from nearby Desenzano, who brought the aeronauts some bananas.19 Air Marshal Italo Balbo was waiting for Piccard. Upon hearing the news, Balbo drove to the village to personally invite Piccard to attend a fête in his honor in Venice. The professor begged off, claiming he had no evening clothes with him. In a comradely, if obviously disingenuous manner, Balbo said he didn’t either. Decades later, Auguste Piccard’s grandson, Bertrand, shared a family story about that night. The dapper Balbo simply decided that if Monsieur Piccard had only his “flight suit” to wear, he would reciprocate by donning one of his own.20 One can only imagine the astonished looks on the guests’ faces as Balbo and Piccard entered the ballroom looking like they had stepped out of one of the newsreels that had made them famous and instantly recognizable the world over. The two enjoyed an evening together on the Lido in one of Europe’s most stylish cities. There was no doubt—Piccard’s feat captured the world’s imagination. But it also begged the question: How much higher could humans go? And what might they find there?

No one was as excited for Auguste Piccard than his twin brother, Jean. No one better understood what motivated him, and what he hoped to achieve. By 1931 Jean Piccard, the husband of an American and father of three Americans, had himself become an American citizen. This was home now. When Auguste was invited to the United States to meet with American aviation’s aristocracy, Jean was there to greet him at the pier in New York. In a nutshell, the tour wasn’t quite the success one might have hoped. Auguste Piccard didn’t translate to Americans the way that Hugo Eckener, for instance, did. He was too honest. When asked what he thought of New York’s magnificent Art Deco skyline, he remarked that it had nothing on the Alps. Perhaps.


Members of a very elite club: Italo Balbo and Auguste Piccard talk in the park of the Villa Pellegrini Malfatti in Desenzano (1932). Getty Images.

The Chicago World’s Fair committee had an eye on Professor Calculus as a potential interest-generating, ticket-selling attraction. Another record-breaking ascent, originating in Chicago, held great appeal and could count on generous sponsorship. But Auguste Piccard had other ideas. He returned to Europe and offered his brother Jean as a worthy substitute. The baton was being passed. Jean Piccard was about to be swept into the maelstrom of a media frenzy ultimately weighted with nationalistic, sexist, and ideological overtones.


The professor and the graduate student had married, started a family, and moved to the groom’s home country to teach together at the University of Lausanne; then returned to the bride’s home country to make a life in the New World. Theirs was a true partnership of equals: raising their three sons, discussing advances in the field of chemistry and, inevitably, ballooning. At a certain point they reached a similar conclusion: Why not go “up” together? This represented the seed of an idea that would germinate in the months ahead. They then had no idea of the resistance they would encounter. But greatness often demands this. Meanwhile, the world fell down . . .


* Low air pressure makes it more difficult for the body to absorb oxygen.

* Eduard Schweizer was his real name; “Spelterini” was his stage name.

* Among the attendees was a young German student named Wernher von Braun.

* As Tom Cheshire astutely points out, this compares to the average volume of 2,800 cubic meters of most modern-day hot-air balloons (i.e., Auguste Piccard’s balloon to the stratosphere was enormous).

* “All is going well. Observation good.”

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