Nearly 80 years ago, on 27 May 1931, the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard took off from Augsberg, Germany, in a pressurised aluminium capsule attached to a large hydrogen balloon. His destination was the stratosphere, the second major layer of our atmosphere, between six and 31 miles above Earth. No one had ever been that high before and Piccard wanted to measure the activity of cosmic rays and investigate Einstein’s theory of relativity. He and his assistant, Paul Kipfer, reached a record 15,785m (9.8 miles).
It wasn’t all plain sailing. For Will Gregory, who has written an opera about Piccard’s big adventure, Piccard in Space, which has its premiere this week, “the thing that stood out was that everything seemed to go wrong, right from the get-go. Kipfer looked out of the window while they were doing a final check and he could see chimneys going past – they had already taken off. And then there was the leak, the spilled mercury and the bit when they nearly asphyxiated because they didn’t have enough air. It was a catalogue of terrifying lurches from one catastrophe to another – just brilliant for music.”
Piccard and Kipfer planned on touching down in the Adriatic. Instead, they crash-landed on a glacier in the Austrian Alps. But that didn’t deter the physicist from making a second ascent the following year, in which he broke the 10-mile mark. and The physicist made 25 further balloon flights. In the mid-1930s, having climbed to an incredible 23,000m (14 miles), he decided to plumb the depths instead and designed a flotation tank to explore the oceans. He died in 1962.
Seeing pictures of the 6ft 6in scientist-inventor-explorer, with his bulging forehead, round spectacles and receding mane of hair, it’s not surprising to learn that he was the inspiration for Professor Calculus in the Tintin books. (Hergé had to make him shorter so that he would fit into the frame.) Piccard’s name, slightly truncated, also crops up in Star Trek. “He was a gentleman scientist, a polymath,” says Gregory, “but he was also prepared to get into this tiny thing and shoot up into the stratosphere. Scientists don’t do those sort of things these days. They don’t theorise, design, build and then execute the whole operation themselves. It’s a bit like Einstein getting in Apollo 13 or something – quite unheard of – and I suspect those days are over.”