Bertrand Piccard’s Laps Around the World

The explorer’s grandfather travelled higher than anyone; his father went deeper. Now it was his turn to make a mark.

Each winter morning, in the Swiss alpine village of Château-d’Oex, the first sunlight appears as jagged slivers on the edges of surrounding peaks. Then light descends into the valley, bathing the ground in radiation. As the valley warms, the air in the village begins to rise, creating a circulatory effect: cold air rushes down the slopes to replace what has risen, only to be warmed and lifted up into the sky. At night, the opposite occurs. It is, according to the Swiss aeronaut Bertrand Piccard, “as if the mountain is breathing.”

Before dawn, “there is this pause between breaths,” Piccard continued. “It’s cold, and there is just no movement in the air.” One early morning in 1999, during such a pause, several dozen locals stood in a field near the church, in front of an eighteen-thousand-pound contraption of nylon, aluminum, and steel—a balloon. The sky was overcast, the valley full of mist, as technicians and villagers set about preparing the craft for launch. By dawn, it was standing nearly as tall as the Tower of Pisa. It had nine times the volume of an ordinary hot-air balloon, and carried a pressurized cabin that could bring its pilots to the cruising altitudes of most commercial airplanes. The balloon, which the team called Breitling Orbiter Three, for its sponsor, the watch company, was so delicate and unwieldy that it had never been properly inflated before; its inaugural test flight would be an attempted circumnavigation of the Earth.

At 5 A.M., Piccard climbed out of bed and joined his co-pilot, a British aviator named Brian Jones, for a hurried breakfast of muesli and tea. Then he went back to his room and threw up. It was his forty-first birthday. He had made two previous attempts at circumnavigation; both had ended in failure, with multimillion-dollar prototype balloons ditched and destroyed, first in the Mediterranean, then in Myanmar. He wasn’t alone in failure—no balloonist had ever managed a lap around the world, despite a decade of high-profile efforts. But a rival team was already in the sky, with several days’ head start.

After dawn, the wind started to blow, and the balloon began swaying. Wisps of helium tumbled out of the balloon envelope, like dry ice, as propane tanks jangled around the gondola’s external frame. Piccard and Jones hurried through the cabin’s hatch, and Piccard’s father, Jacques, wiped the hatch seal with a handkerchief before bidding them goodbye.

Radios on, altimeter set, safety pins removed, life support activated, gas valve tested. During preflight checks, the gondola, which was tied to a five-ton truck, thrashed about, tossing the pilots around. Then a member of the launch team cut the tether with a Swiss Army knife, and Piccard and Jones shot into the sky.

A thousand feet up, cold air from the valley collided with warmer air from above, and the balloon slowed its ascent. Jones started dumping sand, to shed weight, and Piccard ignited the burners. The Orbiter climbed twenty thousand feet in little more than an hour. Any faster and the envelope might have burst. Piccard vented excess helium, to control the rate of climb. Then the winds blew the Orbiter south, past the Matterhorn, over Mont Blanc. Jones took a nap; Piccard sat in silence and watched the mountains where he’d grown up skiing file past.

Piccard anticipated that the weeks ahead would prove as much an emotional journey as a test of engineering and will. On land, he worked as a psychiatrist, and he encouraged patients to embrace dislocations from their everyday lives—to build confidence and reframe their priorities through novel experiences. “Routine is more dangerous than adventure,” he told me. “I don’t like le risque aléatoire”—random, incalculable risk. “I don’t like Russian roulette. But routine is killing us,” dulling people’s sense of curiosity and purpose and wonder, leaving them looking back on their lives with regret. He went on to attribute a saying to an early aviator, Jimmy Melrose: “Someone asked him, ‘Are you not afraid of having an accident?’ And he said, ‘The accident would be to die in my bed.’ ”

In the Geneva airport, Piccard’s weather team projected the movements of atmospheric winds all over the world. Using models that were based on the spread of nuclear fallout over Europe after the Chernobyl disaster, the weathermen, Luc Trullemans and Pierre Eckert, had mapped an approximate trajectory for the circumnavigation. Balloon pilots have no way of steering; they can change direction only by going up or down, to inhabit different winds. If Piccard and Jones had any chance at success, it would be from the weather team’s careful reading of the jet streams. For Piccard, who had spent most of his life very deliberately choosing his trajectory, there was something gratifying in surrendering to the conditions of the sky. “It’s acceptance versus will,” he told me. “But acceptance is a decision you take. You accept to go with the wind. You accept to go into the unknown.”

It was not unusual, in the past century of exploration, for a Piccard to go into the unknown. In 1931, Bertrand’s grandfather Auguste travelled higher into the sky than anyone before; in 1960, his father, Jacques, piloted an experimental submarine to the deepest point on Earth.

By going up and down, Auguste and Jacques glimpsed a cross-section of the planet—a study, at each layer, of what is dictated in life by physics and what so defies the existing scientific understanding that it forces us to reconsider our place in the universe. To travel in the vertical dimension is to brush against the limits of the possible. By the time Bertrand was born, in 1958, the Piccards were known for having carried Jules Verne’s fiction into reality. The Belgian cartoonist Hergé modelled Professor Calculus, from the Tintin series, on Auguste, and the first director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center credited Auguste’s twin brother with inspiring a key aspect of spaceship design. In the eighties, the writers of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” named Captain Picard as a tribute to the family. The Piccards were guests of honor at the Apollo rocket launches, and artifacts from their adventures have been on display in the Smithsonian. The family home, near Lausanne, was filled with medals, totems, and tributes: a guestbook signed by Albert Einstein and Amelia Earhart; a Légion d’Honneur.

But in Bertrand’s lifetime scientists’ understanding of Earth’s trajectory had shifted. His father’s and his grandfather’s adventures were in the service of studying the planet’s systems as they were; now the great unknown, in atmospheric and oceanographic science, was how, and with what spiralling consequences, humans were altering them. “Because the atmosphere is so thin, the activity of 7.7 billion humans can actually make significant changes to the entire system,” David Crisp, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has said. Piccard had three young daughters; he was acutely aware of how little time had passed between the reliable habitability of the planet that his father had explored and the increasing volatility of the one that his children would inherit.

Piccard was not a physicist or an atmospheric scientist, nor was he an engineer. But he recognized the narrative force of his position. If past explorers inspired learning through discovery, the Piccard of the moment would have to reframe the role to inspire acts of preservation—to make sure that there would still be a world left to explore. But in order to carry out his mission, he would first have to fashion himself into someone who could command an audience.

“What is a psychotherapist doing? Coming up with treatments to overcome symptoms—in this case, of inefficiency, of energy use, and of consumption,” he told me. He recalled a psychological framework that he used to teach patients, to help them confront seemingly overwhelming challenges. “An adventure is a crisis that you accept,” he said. “A crisis is a possible adventure that you refuse, for fear of losing control.”

Twenty thousand feet above the Mediterranean, Piccard discovered that, in order to maintain altitude, he had to burn propane for six seconds out of every ten. It was a worrying development; at this rate, he and Jones would run out of fuel in less than seven days. A lap around the world would take something more like twenty.

As Jones slept, Piccard flew southwest—the wrong direction, but according to plan. The weather team at the Geneva airport had calculated that powerful winds in the skies above Morocco would carry the Orbiter south and then east across Mauritania, Mali, and beyond. The fuel situation stabilized—he was now burning four seconds out of every sixteen—but the Chinese government had refused to grant permission for the Orbiter team to fly north of the 26th Parallel, near Tibet. Every aspect of the flight, from the launch date to the Moroccan diversion, was calculated by the weather team in order to thread a needle ten days and roughly eight thousand miles ahead.

At 4:48 A.M. on day three, Piccard caught his first glimpse of the Atlas Mountains. Patches of snow gleamed on the peaks below, emphasizing the relief, while the lights of Marrakech glittered in the distance. He watched the sun rise in silent astonishment; he was seeing the planet from a remove, as if he were not quite part of it.

The air temperature was some fifty degrees below zero outside the capsule, and at night the pilots’ breath frosted the windows. Then the sun warmed the balloon, reducing the amount of fuel that Piccard and Jones were burning.

There were thirty-two propane cylinders, racked along an exterior frame. On day four, somewhere over the Sahara, Piccard and Jones descended to ten thousand feet and climbed through the hatch. Huge icicles dangled from the envelope, like stalactites; Piccard went after them with a fire axe, as Jones fixed an electrical fault and then cut loose some of the empty fuel cylinders. “Away the tank went, tumbling end over end, glinting in the sun,” Jones wrote. Back in the capsule, he told the team in Geneva that he “saw the tanks hit the sand, so don’t entertain any claim for personal injury.”

Onward, and faster—southern Algeria, then into Libya. Between sleeping shifts, Piccard and Jones stared at the changing shapes and colors of the desert, marvelling at the sight of rocks protruding like the spines on the backs of dinosaurs. The next morning, Piccard discovered and ascended into a jet stream that was moving faster than anticipated. Elated, he reported his maneuver to Geneva, where the exasperated weather team told him that if he wanted to make it around the world he’d have to go slower and lower. “Do you want to go very fast in the wrong direction, or slowly in the right direction?” they asked.

Southeast, now, at sixty-three knots. Egypt threatened to scramble fighter jets when the balloon drifted too close to the Aswan Dam; Sudan didn’t reply to contact at all. Even without fuel problems, government regulation could end the flight: four years earlier, during an international balloon race, a Belarusian military helicopter had shot down a balloon that had drifted across the border from Poland, killing both pilots.

On day nine, as Piccard and Jones flew over India, a founder of the annual Château-d’Oex balloon festival spotted the Orbiter from his seat in a commercial plane. Bangladesh, Myanmar, China; the weather team had nailed the trajectory, keeping the Orbiter just south of the 26th Parallel, in a wind channel that was only three hundred feet tall. By now, Piccard and Jones were the only balloon team still in the race. A storm had brought down their rivals over the Sea of Japan. A couple of months earlier, a balloon piloted by Richard Branson had run out of fuel, forcing him to ditch near Hawaii; in a previous attempt, Branson’s balloon had taken off without him. “What we’d like is about 100 neat bullet holes through the upper part of the balloon,” Branson told the Royal Moroccan Air Force, according to the Times. “Enough to let it float down but not to make such a mess that we couldn’t patch it up for another try in a few weeks.”

A burner failed as Piccard and Jones approached the Pacific Ocean—nine thousand miles of blue. Large expanses of the Pacific see no ship or air traffic, limiting the possibilities of rescue should anything go wrong. Piccard became so anxious about the crossing that he resorted to self-hypnosis to get to sleep. Somewhere near the Mariana Trench, Trullemans, of the weather team, predicted that, in three days’ time, a fast-moving subtropical jet stream would form southwest of Hawaii. The flight team filed a new plan to catch it, running south of the continental United States.

The longer they flew, the more troubles they encountered—storm clouds, failing equipment, freezing temperatures, lost radio contact, and a critical imbalance in the levels of carbon dioxide in the cabin. By the time they reached Mexico, on day sixteen, they were also getting low on fuel. For Piccard, this was the moment that transformed a mostly technical mission into a leap of faith. “A lot of people don’t take decisions when they have to take decisions,” he told me. “And finally they are in situations where they are not happy, and they think, I’m failing in life—what happened? Well, sometimes it’s just that they did not take the step into the unknown.

“What was the risk?” he continued. “Ditching in the Atlantic. Just ditching. And we had trained for that.” The team in Geneva called to say that it was calculating fuel reserves. “You don’t need to calculate—we are going for it,” Piccard recalled responding. After crossing the Caribbean, the Orbiter caught a jet stream travelling toward West Africa at a hundred and forty miles per hour.

Halfway through day nineteen, with the journey’s end in sight, Jacques Piccard spoke to his son from the control room in Geneva. “You still have to land,” he said. “When you land, you must bend your knees.” They set down in the Egyptian desert with one per cent of their fuel remaining. But, for Piccard, the elation of a world first was tempered by the scale of consumption it required. “I made a promise to myself,” he recalled. “The next time I would fly around the world, it would be with no fuel.”

When Bertrand was a child, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center expressed a hope that he would “continue the Piccard family tradition of exploring both inner and outer space.” For as long as he had been alive, he had been tagging along to functions where scientists and astronauts treated him as the future of their fields. But, in secret, Bertrand was afraid that he might not live up to his family name. He was terrified of heights. He was scared to hike in the Alps with his grandfather; he could hardly climb trees to pick fruit. Once, he tied a rope to his house’s balcony and attempted to let himself down, but got stuck and screamed for his father.

One day, when Bertrand was sixteen, he saw a man soaring through the skies over an alpine village near Lake Geneva, attached only to a triangular wing. It was the first time he had seen a hang glider, and in that moment—against his deepest insecurities—he decided that this sport was for him. His father, Jacques, opposed the idea, but Bertrand started trading antique rifles to buy his own equipment. Jacques paid only for his safety gear—his helmet, parachute, and pads. During Bertrand’s first flight, he crashed into a chimney. But before long he was training in aerobatics—launching his hang glider out of hot-air balloons, performing loops and rolls over the Swiss Alps, chasing eagles between thermal lifts in the sky.

When Piccard’s body was cutting through the air at seventy miles an hour, his mind was a blank, his fears forgotten. What mattered was the tensing of his muscles, the shifting of his weight, the angles of his joints. He wasn’t dismissive of the stakes—he lost friends to accidents, and his body, at times, was subject to forces more than four times that of gravity. But in the sky he felt fully in the moment, and utterly alive. “The word ‘vigilance’ takes on a new meaning when your life is in your hands,” he wrote. “Your own existence takes on a new dimension, it acquires a special flavour when you learn to preserve it personally, when you are in charge of it.”

After high school, Piccard enrolled in the psychiatry department at the University of Lausanne, where he continued his study of fear and ways to overcome it. He learned to parse its meaning as an irrational projection of a negative future scenario that, with sufficient focus and training, was unlikely to come about. “This was such a revelation for me,” he recalled. “When you are fully in what you do—fully in the presence of yourself, in your body—there is no space for fear. There is just no space for fear! Because you are inside yourself, in the present moment, and not projecting yourself in the future.” As part of his preparation for school exams, Piccard would set aside his reading and take to the sky. He began to think of the lower atmosphere above the Swiss Alps as a vast laboratory of solitude, a place where he could study his inner world and experience, second by second, the ways in which his decisions determined his trajectory. Hang gliding, he wrote, was “a meeting face to face with the present, almost a way of stopping time.”

After college, Piccard recalled, “I thought, I have to go into psychiatry and psychotherapy, because it is where I will be able to implement professionally what I learned through hang gliding.” He attended medical school, worked in a hospital, and studied Freud, while also performing in air shows. In 1985, when he was twenty-seven, he won a European hang-gliding aerobatics competition. A few years later, as a practicing psychotherapist, he began studying hypnosis and incorporating it into sessions. “In psychoanalysis, people understand where the problem comes from, but they don’t necessarily feel better,” he told me. “In hypnosis, you have the exact opposite! After a few sessions, you don’t necessarily know why you have the problem, but you feel much better.”

For his patients, as in the sky, Piccard sought to consider and manipulate the experience of time. He found that his depressed patients were fixated on the past, and his most anxious ones were consumed by the future. Through hypnosis, he sought to re-create the intermediate space, where patients could heal from past traumas and confront their fears. “You have to invent a new strategy for every patient,” he said. But certain aphorisms could be universally applied: “You must overcome the past by doing something in the present that helps you in the future.”

In 1992, Piccard attended a dinner at the annual balloon festival in Château-d’Oex. Then in his mid-thirties, he had a trim, athletic build and piercing blue eyes, and he’d developed an intense manner of listening to people that left them grasping for his attention the moment it was withdrawn. He arrived late, and took the only remaining seat, next to Wim Verstraeten, an accomplished Belgian pilot out of whose balloon Piccard had previously jumped with his hang glider. During the meal, Verstraeten explained that he was preparing to take part in the first ever transatlantic balloon race. The journey would last almost a week, he said, and he was searching for a co-pilot. Another dinner guest suggested Piccard. As a hypnotherapist, she proposed, he could help Verstraeten alternate smoothly between states of hyper-alertness and rest. Verstraeten leaped at the idea; Piccard, who had never piloted a balloon, agreed. When they took off from Bangor, Maine, a few months later, he had completed only five hours of pilot training.

If not for the visual evidence, a passenger in a balloon might hardly know that he had left the ground. You do not feel the wind; you simply inhabit it. Sounds from below—children playing, dogs barking—come at a muted remove. For some fliers, the stillness is accompanied by a sense of negation of the self. You are suspended as if living in a postcard, or perhaps undergoing the kind of out-of-body experience some people report after brushes with death. Now you can stare a mountain peak in the face. Only the rhythmic burning of the fuel—a jet of flames for a few seconds, followed by silence for several more—serves as a reminder that you’re in a wicker basket, kept aloft by the temperature of some air particles.

The pilot has less time to take it all in. There are tasks to complete for maintaining altitude and direction, instruments to monitor, fuel tanks to swap out when empty. As Verstraeten grew tired, he asked Piccard to help him fall into a deep, regenerative sleep.

Piccard instructed Verstraeten to hold out his thumb and tense his muscles as much as possible. “Stretch it above the skyline,” he said. “There we are . . . that’s fine.” Now relax the muscles. “Your arm is stretched . . . and it may become a little heavier . . . perhaps a lot heavier . . . like your eyelids . . . which will eventually close by themselves.” He matched his breathing to Verstraeten’s, and spoke only as Verstraeten exhaled. Every fifteen seconds, Piccard fired up the burners, to stay aloft. “That noise you can hear is all right,” he told Verstraeten. “I’m the one who’s piloting . . . you don’t have to do anything . . . your breathing is getting heavier . . . like your arms . . . and your eyelids. . . . ” Verstraeten nodded off. Piccard, who did not yet have a balloon license, flew over the Atlantic.

The wind carried the balloon east, toward the Portuguese coast, and Verstraeten and Piccard won the race. Two other teams completed it, and the rest ditched over the ocean.

Back in Switzerland, Piccard returned to his psychiatry practice, transformed. He adopted a new ballooning metaphor for his patients—and for the corporate and TED-talk circuits, where he has honed his skills in public speaking. “In the balloon, like in life, we go in unforeseen directions,” he said. “And as long as we fight horizontally—against the winds, against what’s happening to us—life is a nightmare.” The solution, he proposed, was to change altitude, and catch a different wind. “And how do you change altitude? You drop ballast.” Identify what is holding you back, and shed the excess, in order to rise. Pioneers, he argued, are those who not only seek conclusions but live the questions themselves, unattached to unhealthy habits, dogmas, or beliefs. Exploring the vertical axis, he continued, “means to explore all the different ways to do, all the different ways to behave, all the different ways to think, before we find the one that goes in the direction we wish.”

E. O. Wilson writes of a Swedish physiologist who was once asked what he thought of the Pope’s assertion that the Virgin Mary was taken bodily into Heaven. He reportedly replied that he couldn’t be sure, because he wasn’t there, but of one thing he was certain: she passed out at thirty thousand feet.

All human settlements fall within a tiny band of the lower atmosphere, from the Dead Sea region to La Rinconada, a Peruvian gold-mining village in the high Andes, three miles up. At that altitude, half of the atmospheric pressure is gone, and, if you go a little higher, the air becomes so thin that your lungs struggle to inflate. Beyond five miles, there isn’t enough oxygen for humans to survive. Hypoxia sets in. Twelve miles up, where there is barely any atmospheric pressure, your blood would start to boil. No one knows exactly where to define the limits of the atmosphere; by one measure, it extends nearly to the moon. But the range of what for us is habitable is astonishingly small—a mere film around the planet, making possible the formation of complex life.

Every planet has an atmosphere, and each, besides our own, is unique in its particular hostility to life. The average wind speed on Neptune is seven hundred miles per hour. Jupiter’s swirling red spot is a multicentury storm. Venus’s surface temperature is nine hundred degrees. But Earth’s atmosphere—for us, for now—works. It allows for liquid water in the oceans. It insulates the planet from wild fluctuations in surface temperature between daytime and night. Its weather, even at its most extreme, is incredibly mild on a cosmic scale. Still, it is indifferent to the maintenance of our existence. “I don’t think the planet is in danger,” the Italian physicist Giorgio Parisi said, in a recent interview. “But we are.”

What the atmosphere maintains within it is no more important than what it keeps out; its mass of particles serves as a defense against constant bombardment by cosmic rays—high-energy particles, hurtling toward us at nearly the speed of light, from the births and deaths of stars in the farthest reaches of the universe. Were they to hit us directly, they would cause damage to every aspect of our bodies, by breaking the strands of our DNA.

Perhaps the most audacious study of cosmic rays was carried out in 1931, by Auguste Piccard, Bertrand’s grandfather, an eccentric, bespectacled physicist who wrote several groundbreaking scientific papers and predicted the existence of uranium 235. Six and a half feet tall, with ill-fitting clothes and untamed hair, he was known as “the absent-minded professor.” He attended conferences with Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Marie Curie, and he always carried a slide rule in his pocket. Each morning, he strapped on two watches; that way, if they didn’t match, he knew he had the wrong time.

Auguste Piccard was also a licensed balloonist; as a young man, he had served in the Swiss military’s balloon corps, which carried out reconnaissance drills over the Alps. By his forties, he had come to regard the balloon as a kind of laboratory for the sky. In 1926, he ascended with his instruments to more than fourteen thousand feet, in order to collect evidence that light travelled at the same speed at altitude as it did on land. His measurements affirmed Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. According to Tom Cheshire’s “The Explorer Gene,” from 2013, Einstein—a mentor of Piccard’s, who served as one of the examiners for his doctorate—wrote him a letter of gratitude.

Piccard postulated that most of the cosmic rays bombarding the Earth never reach it in their original form; thus they must collide, at high speed, with the atmosphere, shattering into secondary particles. But the only way to test his theory would be to measure the prevalence of cosmic rays at a high altitude—ten miles up, above ninety per cent of the atmospheric mass. Unmanned weather balloons were inadequate for the task; the automated instrumentation of the era was too imprecise. To carry out his experiments, Piccard concluded, he would have to transport himself and his instruments into the stratosphere, to “meet the cosmic rays . . . where their initial properties would not yet have been too modified by collisions with the molecules of our atmosphere,” he later wrote. “That is why I decided to ascend myself to 10 miles.”

Piccard designed a spherical cabin for himself and an assistant, consisting of two hemispheres welded together—roughly seven feet in diameter, accommodating his exceptional height. It would contain spare oxygen reserves, and filters for excess carbon dioxide that would be generated through breathing. “Our lives depend upon the airtightness and the strength of this cabin,” Piccard wrote. To build it, he hired experts in the construction of aluminum beer tanks. It would be the first attempt in human history to replicate the exact atmospheric pressure found at sea level, no matter the altitude or the depth.

Every inch travelled downward from sea level adds pressure, and every inch travelled upward takes it away. A hundred-mile venture across the surface of the Earth might bring about some changes in weather and vegetation; a hundred miles above it puts you firmly in outer space. For most of human existence, our vertical range was limited to the distance between the depth to which a person could swim in a single breath and the highest mountain a person could climb. Now, as Piccard worked on his pressurized cabin, other engineers and physicists considered the construction impossible, the mission akin to suicide. But, as Piccard saw it, “the single objection that they were able to make to me was that up till then no one had ever done it.”

A few minutes later, Piccard noticed the sound of air rushing out of the cabin, whistling through a tiny hole. They were two and a half miles off the ground, and ascending at an average speed of twenty miles per hour. But the leaky cabin was failing to maintain its internal pressure—they may as well have been in a wicker basket. The situation was critical. “If we don’t become airtight immediately, we must pull the valve and land, if we don’t want to suffocate,” Piccard told Kipfer. They went to work, sealing the hole with a mixture of Vaseline and a fibre called tow. At last, the whistling stopped. “Never have I appreciated silence so much,” Piccard noted. They had lost at least a third of their atmospheric pressure, but the seal now worked. Piccard poured some liquid-oxygen reserves onto the floor, and as it evaporated the pressure inside the cabin was restored.

Above the capsule, as the atmospheric pressure lessened with altitude, the hydrogen inside the balloon envelope expanded to fill a volume five times larger than it had at launch. Twenty-eight minutes after departure, the envelope was now fully spherical, achieving its final form. Kipfer took an altitude reading—fifty-one thousand two hundred feet. They had breached the stratosphere, going higher than anyone before. Staring out the porthole, Piccard and Kipfer became the first humans to see the curvature of the Earth. At the horizon, they could perceive a delineation between the lower and upper atmospheres, with the latter blending gently into outer space. “The beauty of this sky is the most poignant thing we have seen,” Piccard noted. “It is sombre, dark blue or violet, almost black.” If the air had been transparent when he looked down, his visual field would have covered an area larger than that of France. Instead, with nine-tenths of the atmosphere’s particles between him and the planet, the downward view was marred—“blurred as in a bad photograph,” he wrote.

Piccard and Kipfer set about taking measurements of cosmic rays. But, as Piccard put it, they made “a very unpleasant discovery: the rope which controlled the valve was not working.” Unable to open the valve, they could not vent hydrogen and begin the descent. “Instead of obeying us, the balloon would go down only when external conditions permitted it, that is to say, when it grew colder at sunset,” Piccard wrote.

Piccard had told reporters that he planned to land at midday. At two in the afternoon, he calculated that at their current rate of descent they would be in the sky for fifteen days. Piccard wrote that he and Kipfer had “tried once more to open the valve by turning the windlass winch around which the cable was wound, by means of a crank placed inside the cabin. But the cable broke clean off, which definitely put at an end any hope of controlling the balloon. There we were, prisoners of the stratosphere.”

Piccard and Kipfer, meanwhile, confronted a series of calamities as they waited for the cool night air to facilitate their descent. The radiance of the sun was twice as intense, at that altitude, as it is at ground level; although the outside air temperature was more than a hundred degrees below zero, the aluminum sphere had warmed to more than a hundred degrees above. A thick layer of frost, which had formed inside the cabin during the morning ascent, snowed down on Piccard and Kipfer. Having run out of water, they resorted to licking droplets of moisture dripping down the cabin walls. When that supply ran dry, Piccard poured liquid oxygen into an aluminum goblet; after the oxygen had evaporated, a layer of frost formed on the rim. “But it was so cold it burnt to the touch, for it was formed at -350° F,” he wrote.

For each new crisis, Piccard had some ingenious, if haphazard, fix. At one point, his and Kipfer’s ears popped, and they discovered that the Vaseline seal had failed. “The struggle for life began again,” Piccard noted. He patched the hole. A barometer broke, spilling liquid mercury all over the cabin floor. Mercury eats through aluminum; Piccard raced to affix a rubber tube to a tap that was connected to the outside. The pressure differential created a vacuum, ejecting the poisonous element into the sky.

Darkness fell; the balloon accelerated its descent, shrinking the fifteen-day timeline to a few hours. Finally, when they reached fifteen thousand feet, Kipfer assessed that the pressure outside the capsule was roughly equal to that within it, and so the two desperate scientists wrenched open the hatch and stuck out their heads. Two nearby clouds lit up with stormy electric charges. But the balloon drifted away from the danger, and the men began packing up the heavy instruments in preparation for landing.

After slamming into the icy ground, they bounced over a glacier—“a maze of crevasses,” as Piccard later described it—before touching down a second time in a more suitable landing zone. Kipfer pulled a cord to rip open the envelope, releasing the hydrogen. The cabin rolled in the snow, then came to rest. For Piccard, the landing was uneventful, but Kipfer was buried underneath hundreds of pounds of scientific instruments and lead ballast. After digging him out, Piccard took a nap. Then the two set off on foot, hiking through the Alps until they ran into a startled search party whose members had expected to collect only their corpses.

In 1933, Auguste Piccard went to America, where he dined with various luminaries of exploration. Seated next to Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, he pulled out his slide rule in order to convert kilometres into miles. Also present was William Beebe, who, in a tethered submarine capsule, had descended in the ocean to a depth of three thousand feet. Beebe asked Piccard what he’d seen “up there.”

Auguste Piccard’s pressurized capsule opened the skies in ways that had previously seemed impossible. He predicted that in the coming years commercial airplanes with pressurized cabins would be able to transport passengers through the stratosphere, at speeds of four hundred miles per hour. But, for him, the success of the pressurized capsule had a deeper meaning: it would open the oceans, too. “So many questions, so many mysteries,” Piccard wrote. “It is only by going down ourselves to the depths of the sea that we can hope to clear them up.”

Long before assembling the capsule, Piccard had dreamed of creating a submarine that could travel untethered to any depth. But the problem would be the crushing pressure of water against the hull. To go from sea level to space is to go from one atmosphere of pressure—about fourteen and a half pounds pushing against every square inch—to zero. But in water the inverse transition takes place every thirty-three feet. At the deepest point in the deepest ocean, the hull would have to survive the pressure of eleven hundred atmospheres.

Now, with the stratospheric balloon as his proof of concept, Auguste Piccard set about requesting funds to build a deep-ocean submersible, which he called the bathyscaphe, after the Greek words for “deep” and “boat.” “To understand how the bathyscaphe functions, it is sufficient to compare it to a free balloon,” he explained. One goes through water, the other through air, but “the principle in question is the same.”

The bathyscaphe design, therefore, mirrored that of his stratospheric balloon. There were extraordinary calculations and considerations, and any oversight would equate to certain death. But the concept was simple: a strong, watertight sphere, suspended in the ocean by an enormous tank filled with gasoline—a buoyant substance that would not compress. To go down, add weight; to go up, release it.

In the next three decades, Auguste Piccard developed several iterations of the submersible, and set records for his dives and feats of engineering near Cape Verde, in the Atlantic, and Ponza, an island in the Mediterranean. But he remained a purist, always celebrating instead the implications of these dives for ocean science. “I am a physicist, not a record hunter,” he reportedly said. The aspiration was to observe and study obscure fish in the depths where they reside. “It isn’t a boxing match or the Tour de France.”

During the Second World War, Piccard’s assistant was reportedly killed by the Nazis, and so he brought his son Jacques, who was in his twenties, into the project, and trained him in all aspects of submersible piloting and design. Jacques, like his father, was tall and calculating—but he was less the eccentric physicist and more the image of an explorer. By 1952, having become an engineer, he was overseeing every aspect of construction for the latest iteration of the bathyscaphe, at a shipyard in Italy. “Not a detail escaped him,” Auguste later wrote of his son. “Not an instrument but had passed through his hands; nothing that had not been subject to his personal control. He knows the apparatus better than I do.” Jacques started wearing two Swiss watches, too.

In 1958, the year Bertrand was born, the United States Navy purchased the Piccards’ bathyscaphe, and developed a secretive project, called Nekton, to send humans to the deepest spot on Earth. By now, Jacques was an accomplished submarine pilot; by default, as the bathyscaphe’s test diver, he was the world’s most experienced deep-ocean explorer. As part of the contract, the Navy hired him to train its pilots, and allowed him the option of taking over any dives that presented “special problems.”

On the morning of January 23, 1960, Jacques Piccard asserted that right, as the bathyscaphe, named Trieste, floated over the Mariana Trench, near Guam. In the preceding days, sailors had dropped some eight hundred blocks of TNT into the water, and counted the seconds that it took for the echo of each explosion to reverberate up from the bottom. The consensus was about fourteen seconds—seven down, seven up. Given the speed of sound in water, that would make the dive site almost seven miles deep: the deepest trench on Earth.

Inside the bathyscaphe, bobbing at the surface, Jacques waited with his co-pilot, a Navy lieutenant named Don Walsh, for the signal to dive. Then, on the main ship nearby, a radioman handed a telegram to Andy Rechnitzer, the director of Project Nekton. It was from his superiors at the naval laboratory in San Diego: “CANCEL DIVING. COME HOME.”

Rechnitzer went for coffee in the mess hall. He showed the telegram to a colleague. At the time, there was broad public debate about the idea of using deep-ocean trenches as dumping grounds for nuclear waste. According to “Opening the Great Depths,” by the naval historians Norman Polmar and Lee J. Mathers, Rechnitzer, who hated the idea, had urged Walsh and Piccard to find some evidence of life. “Just see one animal down there,” he said. “That’s all it takes, just one of anything.” Evidence of life, at that depth, would suggest that vertical currents brought oxygen down from the surface, meaning that those same currents could transport nuclear waste back up. After a coffee, Rechnitzer went back to the radio room, and cabled San Diego, “TRIESTE NOW PASSING 20,000 FEET.” A few hundred yards away, Piccard and Walsh were still waiting for the signal to dive.

Hatch closed, pumps on—down they went, a couple of feet per second, and the hours ticked past. Rechnitzer had told them to expect to reach a little more than thirty-three thousand feet. But the bathyscaphe kept on dropping, and Walsh and Piccard began to wonder if their instruments were broken. According to Walsh, Piccard switched on the exterior lights and peered through the only porthole—a thick cone of glass, the diameter of a quarter—into the blackness. “This was a vast emptiness beyond all comprehension,” Piccard later wrote. Past thirty-five thousand feet, he told Walsh that they were nearing the bottom. They dropped more ballast, and the bathyscaphe hit the ocean floor. A cloud of silt burst forth. Before rising again, Piccard later reported, he saw a flatfish, resembling a sole. “Even as I saw him, his two round eyes on top of his head spied us,” Piccard wrote. “Slowly, extremely slowly, this flatfish swam away. Moving along the bottom, partly in the ooze and partly in the water he disappeared into his night. Slowly too—perhaps everything is slow at the bottom of the sea—Walsh and I shook hands.”

Jacques Piccard’s assertion that he had seen a flatfish at the bottom of the Mariana Trench was almost certainly a lie—his description of it swimming away from the view port does not resemble the movements of the waxy, insect-like critters that actually reside thirty-five thousand feet down. According to recent studies by Paul Yancey and Alan Jamieson—a scientist who later descended in the same trench as Piccard—the theoretical limit for any kind of fish is some twenty-six thousand feet. (Beyond that, their cells implode.) Still, Piccard’s report had the desired effect, contributing to a worldwide ban on dumping radioactive waste in the trenches.

Piccard’s ecological interest was not new; for as long as Piccards have been redefining technical limits, they have also been preaching the virtues of conservation. “The question now is not so much whether man will be able to go even further, and populate other planets,” Auguste said, nearly a hundred years ago. “The question is how to organize ourselves in such a way as to make life on Earth more and more worth living.” But the political outcome of Jacques’s reported sighting at the bottom of the trench “was my father’s greatest pride,” Bertrand later wrote.

To Jacques, it seemed obvious that if other people could witness the splendors of the world underwater they would prioritize its protection. So he set out to build the world’s first tourist submarine, to bring as many passengers as possible to the bottom of Lake Geneva. More than thirty thousand people travelled there in the next decades, but few were transformed in the manner he had hoped. In the late sixties, Jacques built another submarine and, in the company of U.S. government researchers, drifted the length of the Gulf Stream, over thirty days, to study its characteristics and flow. Soon afterward, Jacques launched a foundation for the protection of lakes and oceans. “His institute aimed to train in environmental protection a representative of each municipality in Switzerland,” Bertrand later wrote. “But no one came.” Jacques’s environmental proposals were shot down by local mayors, his concerns brusquely dismissed by the Pope.

“It was not in my father’s nature to put himself on the level of the rest of society, to understand that not everyone shared his idealistic vision, nor his acute sense of abnegation,” Bertrand wrote. As a child, Bertrand resented that Jacques never allowed the house to be warmed above sixty degrees, and that the shower emitted such a light mist that he could barely rinse the shampoo from his hair. At the same time, Jacques struggled to procure funding for his submarine projects, and eventually his ecological foundation was shuttered. Jacques Piccard died in 2008. According to Bertrand, “His last years were imbued with a certain bitterness” toward humanity, for its unceasing ecological depredations.

When Bertrand completed his circumnavigation by balloon, he was acutely aware that, statistically, his life was half over. But he was determined not to live out the rest of it grasping for relevance in a world that would no longer listen to him, that had acknowledged the record and swiftly moved on. Celebrity was instrumental, he thought; if he prioritized inspiration over the recitation of alarming scientific facts, he might succeed where his father had not. In March, 1999, there was little scientific uncertainty that humans were altering the ratios of particles in the atmosphere, and by the time Bertrand landed his balloon he had burned some four thousand kilograms of fossil fuel. What if he could fly around the world again, he wondered, powered only by the force of the sun?

The sun at its zenith—noon, at the equator—generates about enough power in every square metre that it hits to run a hair dryer. Each subsequent hour lessens the transfer of energy, until sunset, when there is none. For this reason, the solar-powered plane of Piccard’s imagination would require the wingspan of a Boeing 747 but could weigh no more than a car. Still, if it could stay aloft through the night, it would represent an extraordinary breakthrough in aviation: the achievement of perpetual flight.

The head of Boeing told Piccard that such a vehicle was impossible to build; the head of Airbus didn’t return his call. Piccard was disappointed but undeterred. “Innovation does not entail having new ideas, but rather getting rid of old beliefs,” he wrote.

Piccard set off to California to meet with Paul MacCready, a legendary American aeronautical engineer who was born in 1925. In the late seventies, MacCready fell into debt, and so he designed a human-pedalled airplane out of aluminum tubing, Mylar film, and piano wire, and entered it into a competition to win fifty thousand British pounds. It weighed seventy pounds and flew at around ten miles per hour; in 1979, a test pilot, pedalling at a speed of seventy-five revolutions per minute, took off in MacCready’s next iteration from England’s south coast and landed nearly three hours later in France. In 1980, MacCready designed an experimental solar-powered aircraft; this, too, traversed the English Channel. But it had no batteries—they would have added prohibitive weight—so it could never store energy to make it through the night. Now, in a fast-food joint in Pasadena, Piccard laid out his vision, which he came to call Solar Impulse, and MacCready sketched out a gigantic wing on a napkin.

Four engines, one pilot, no pressurization—any superfluous weight and the aircraft would fail. Back in Switzerland, Piccard mentioned Solar Impulse to the vice-president of research at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, who offered to sponsor a feasibility study. He also suggested that Piccard bring on board André Borschberg—a former Swiss Air Force pilot and entrepreneur with a background in engineering—to assemble a technical team. That way, Piccard could focus on raising funds for the project, selling it to governments and companies as a symbol, an idea. “When Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, the payload was also just sufficient for one person and some fuel. And twenty years later, there were two hundred people in every airplane crossing the Atlantic,” Piccard told an audience at TEDGlobal. (His numbers were off by a few decades.) “The success will not come if we just fly around the world in a solar-powered airplane. No, the success will come if enough people are motivated to do exactly the same in their daily life—save energy, go to renewables.” Afterward, he noted, “I don’t need to know how the airplane should be built. What matters is that the aircraft allows me to achieve my goal.”

Borschberg hired an array of experts from various fields, including an astronaut and a Formula 1 engineer. The youngest in the workshop was a sixteen-year-old intern, the oldest an eighty-year-old volunteer. Battery technology had improved substantially in recent years—enough to solve the problem of the ratio of power to weight. “Economizing on weight is an obsession and it’s now a matter of ounces, not pounds,” Borschberg wrote.

His team calculated that by day the pilot would have to climb to around twenty-eight thousand feet, while the sun charged the plane’s batteries. Then the plane would glide through the darkness. “Only after three to four hours of descent, once it becomes necessary to stabilize the plane’s altitude so as to avoid mountains, cloud cover or turbulence, would battery power be used until sunrise,” Borschberg wrote. The cruising speed would be about forty miles per hour; the primary limitation would be the duration that a pilot could function without sleep.

Twelve years of development and testing, a hundred and seventy million dollars, endless regulatory hurdles; Piccard, who had never flown a plane, acquired his pilot’s license. He and Borschberg tried to write poems and solve math problems while in a decompression chamber, to understand the effects of hypoxia. They also trained in a flight simulator, forcing themselves to function on only twenty-minute naps for as long as three consecutive days. They mapped out a multistage route around the world, and agreed to alternate flights—Borschberg over the Pacific, Piccard over the Atlantic. Piccard, who declined to take a salary from the project, closed his psychiatry practice and made his living from lectures—at thirty to fifty thousand dollars a pop. Once, when he was walking through Zurich, a young woman stopped him on the street. “I lost my boyfriend because of you,” she said. She had been dating the Formula 1 engineer on Borschberg’s team, and the project had completely taken over his life. According to the young woman, Piccard told her, “If you want to change the world, you must make sacrifices.” (Piccard remembers it differently.)

On March 9, 2015, Borschberg took off from Abu Dhabi and landed thirteen hours later in Muscat, Oman. During the next sixteen months, he and Piccard piloted Solar Impulse more than twenty-six thousand miles, from Nanjing to Nagoya to Hawaii, New York to Seville to Cairo. During the Pacific journey, Borschberg set a record for the longest solo airplane flight in history: four days, twenty-one hours, and fifty-two minutes; Borschberg used meditative practices to remain functional on almost no sleep.

Although Solar Impulse consumed no fuel, the effort to get it around the world required two conventional airplanes in tow: one for equipment, another for the team. But as a symbol—as much as a technical achievement—Solar Impulse achieved Piccard’s end. “When the Wright brothers were starting to fly, there was some scientist who explained that it was impossible to have something heavier than air flying,” he told me. “Now each time people tell me, ‘It’s impossible to do this, it’s impossible to do that,’ I say, ‘O.K., please be humble. Just say that you don’t know how to do it.’ ”

For Piccard, the Solar Impulse adventure was a proof of concept—that renewable energy can be harnessed to achieve improbable ends. “My experience as a psychiatrist is that you have to speak the language of the people you want to convince,” he told me. “And the people who I want to convince are key decision-makers in the world of politics, economy, and finance.” By now, he had launched a foundation, to reframe sustainability into the language of profit and job creation. But in 2016, when he was in the middle of delivering an address at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, he felt an acute sense of dissociation. “Everybody was bored, thinking it’s just one more N.G.O.,” he recalled. “I had to tell them something that would wake them up.” His mind drifted to his former psychiatry practice, where he helped patients parse the seemingly insurmountable problems before them into concrete, achievable steps. He announced that his foundation would devise a thousand profitable solutions to bring about a more sustainable future. The audience erupted in applause. Backstage, Piccard’s colleagues at the foundation asked when he had come up with this plan. “Just now,” he replied.

In the following years, the Solar Impulse Foundation hired scientists and specialists to vet companies’ efforts to achieve sustainable goals. It created a framework, with external auditing, to assess and eventually label corporations as both greener and more profitable than alternatives. No individual company would save the planet, Piccard said, but a thousand little steps in the right direction were better than none. The foundation also crafted a guide for cities, to help them integrate numerous solutions at once. So far, the foundation has vetted fourteen hundred and thirty-two “solutions,” from companies whose products range from optimized wastewater and HVAC systems to a solar-powered catamaran, an antiparasitic treatment for honeybees, and an insect-based feed for West African tilapia farmers. (Piccard’s sponsor Breitling also makes the list of “efficient solutions,” for a small box that “aims to re-invent the way watch packaging is handled and perceived.”) The endeavor has received the enthusiastic support of European leaders, from regional officials to Emmanuel Macron. For Piccard, the goal is to be “more practical, more realistic” in his ecological pursuits than his father was; in a recent debate with someone he later described as a “green fundamentalist,” he said, “You try to achieve everything, with the great risk of achieving nothing. I may be trying to reach only halfway—but I think I will get there.”

Piccard lacks both his grandfather’s eccentric purity and his father’s tortured idealism. Instead, he seems to be someone who decided at an early age exactly how he wanted to be. At every stage, he calculated what the objective was, and which steps and partners were instrumental for reaching it. When emotions were unhelpful, he dispelled them; when regulators obstructed him, he flattered their sensibilities in such a way as to make them want to help him succeed.

Where is he most at home? The sky, I think—in silence, or preferably alone. I flew with him three times last winter—first in an electric microlight plane, and then twice in a balloon—and had the impression that these moments were the only times in which he was completely at ease. His confidence as a pilot was accompanied by a palpable sense of liberation from the rules of the ground; in the microlight, as we flew over the Lake of Gruyère, he ceded the controls to me.

In the late sixties, a French sailor named Bernard Moitessier entered a race to circumnavigate the world on a yacht, solo, with no outside assistance. Just as it looked as if he might finish the fastest, he flung a note onto a nearby ship, using a slingshot; it explained that he would carry on sailing, without stopping at the final port, “” (“because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul”).

parce que je suis heureux en mer, et peut-être aussi pour sauver mon âme

Once, as Piccard and I drove back to Lausanne from an aerodrome in the Alps, I asked him if he wished that his balloon had never had to land. “Completely,” he said. Each dawn of his twenty days in the sky during the circumnavigation was seared into his memory. “You have everything black, and then suddenly you have a little white line in the middle,” he said. “And then this line becomes wider and wider, until the sky becomes silver. Suddenly, the sun arrives, and makes everything red. And then you have a flash, and color lands on the Earth. For me, it was every morning as if I was at the moment of the creation of the world.” ♦

Ben Taub, a staff writer, is the recipient of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. His 2018 reporting on Iraq won a National Magazine Award and a George Polk Award.
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