Sunday, July 27, 2008

Playing with Balloons

While the V-2 had achieved great altitude by the 1940s, scientists were still a long way from attempting a human ascent. These early rockets were intended to explode at the end of the journey. If an instrument or a human were on board, explosions were to be avoided at all costs. In fact, another technology, the balloon, would be the first to take human beings into the upper stratosphere, the frontier of space. Auguste Piccard (1884–1962), a Swiss-born Belgian physicist, built a balloon in 1930 to study cosmic rays, which the earth’s atmosphere filters out. Piccard developed revolutionary pressurized cabin designs, which supported life at high altitudes, and, in 1932, reached an altitude of 55,563 feet. The following year, balloonists in the Soviet Union used Piccard’s design to reach 60,700 feet, and an American balloonist topped that later in the year at 61,221 feet.

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