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Can The Sun Fuel A Flight Around The World?

Jun 6, 2014
Originally published on April 20, 2015 10:58 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Getting There.

About Bertrand Piccard's TEDTalk

Explorer Bertrand Piccard explains why he's aiming to carry out an unprecedented mission: to circle the planet in a solar-powered airplane.

About Bertrand Piccard

Bertrand Piccard was born in a family of firsts. In the 1930s, his grandfather, Auguste, was the first to balloon into the stratosphere.

Thirty years later, Auguste's son, Jacques, was on the first team to reach the Mariana Trench, the deepest point of the ocean.

Then in 1999, Bertrand and his co-pilot completed the first nonstop circumnavigation of the globe by balloon, flying nearly 28,000 miles in 20 days.

Now, a team of scientists and engineers around Piccard and co-pilot André Borschberg is building Solar Impulse, an aircraft powered by solar energy. The prototype has the weight of a car but the wingspan of an airbus.

Solar Impulse has successfully flown from Spain to Morocco and across the United States. The next mission: circumnavigation.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about how technology and a crowded planet will change almost everything we know about getting from Point A to Point B. And our first story begins about half a century ago.

BERTRAND PICCARD: (French spoken).

RAZ: Was there, like, a moment when you knew that you wanted to explore the skies?

PICCARD: Yes, a very precise moment. That was in July 1969.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lift off. We have a lift off - 32 minutes past the hour. Lift off on Apollo 11.

RAZ: This is Bertrand Piccard.

PICCARD: I'm, at the same time, medical doctor and explorer and...

RAZ: In July 1969, the Apollo 11 launched to the moon. Betrand Piccard was 11 years old at the time. And he was there to see it happen. And that launch, it wasn't Bertrand's first.

PICCARD: Exactly. I was fortunate enough to see six Apollo takeoff.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have ignition.

PICCARD: Apollo 7...



PICCARD: ...8...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We have lift off.

PICCARD: ...9...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Lift off. We have lift off.

PICCARD: ...10, 11 and 12.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Lift off. We have lift off - 11:22 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

RAZ: So how does an 11-year-old get to witness six Apollo take offs? Well, Bertrand's dad took him because he was an explorer, too. He was a deep-sea submarine diver. And that same week as Apollo 11...

PICCARD: My father started his dive in the Gulf Stream with a submarine he had built. There was a crew of six people, and he made a drift mission underwater from Palm Beach, Florida to New Scotland.

RAZ: Which is also known as Nova Scotia. Anyway, Bertrand's dad, Jacques, was also the first man, along with Don Walsh, to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench. More people have walked on the moon than have been to the Mariana trench. It's the deepest underwater spot on earth. And Jacques's father, Auguste...

PICCARD: My grandfather made the first flight ever into the stratosphere, and he invented the pressurized cabin. And he was the first man to see the curvature of the earth with his own eyes. And you know what is so strange? Is to see that he made his first flight in the stratosphere with a tie. He had a jacket and tie. He had the jacket and the tie - no flying suit.

RAZ: So it must've been incredible to grow up like this, I mean, around those guys.

PICCARD: No, what was really strange was the fact that as long as it was inside my family, I thought it was normal. So there was no limit for me between my dreams as a child and the reality that I could see through all the people I met.

RAZ: OK, so back to that week in July 1969. Bertran's dad, fresh off his undersea mission, wanted his son to see the men who were headed to the moon.

PICCARD: And I met most of the astronauts also the evening before.

RAZ: And you were just a kid.

PICCARD: Yeah, I was 11 years old. But, you know, it's fabulous moment where you open yourself to the world because, you know, at that age, you still have everything to learn. So you're very receptive to everything. And it was so fascinating to see these two feats of exploration down and up in the same week. And I thought that's the type of life I would like to have.

RAZ: So that's the type of life he chose.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Two Europeans attempting to go around the world in a balloon have broken the record for the longest flying time by a hot air balloon without refueling or stopping. Brian Jones of England and Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland...

RAZ: In 1999, 30 years after he watched Apollo 11 go to the moon, Bertrand and Brian Jones became the first men to circle the globe in a hot air balloon. It took them 20 days. They flew as high as 37,000 feet and as fast as 160 miles an hour.

And the pressurized capsule that they traveled in, it now sits at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. right next to the Apollo 11 command module. And at a press conference after he landed, reporters asked Bertrand...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Several people have asked what you will be doing next, and should there be other around-the-world balloon missions. Would you all comment on that?

PICCARD: Well, a lot of people will say that it's the ultimate flight and there's nothing left. Probably the people said that after the Wright Brothers' flight. So...

RAZ: And just like the Wright Brothers' flight, they eventually led to transatlantic travel and jet airplanes. Bertrand's balloon trip was actually the start of another mission - a mission that could change the way we all travel. Here's Bertrand telling a story from the TED stage.


PICCARD: Well, the unknown is part of life. And in that sense, ballooning is a beautiful metaphor because in a balloon, like in life, we want to go in the direction, but the winds push us in another direction, like in life. And as long as we fight horizontally against life, against the winds, life is a nightmare.

When Brian Jones and I were flying around the world, the weatherman asked us one day to fly quite low and very slow. And when we calculated we thought we're never going to make it around the world at that speed. So we dissipate. We flew much higher and double the speed.

And I was so proud to have found that jet stream that I call the weatherman and I told him, hey, guy, don't you think we're good pilots up there. We fly twice the speed you predicted. And he told me don't do that. Go down immediately and told us to slow down. And I started to argue. I said I'm not going to do that. We don't have enough gas to fly so slow. And he told me, yes, but with the low pressure you have on your left, if you fly too fast, in a couple of hours, you will turn left and end up at the North Pole.

And then he asked me - and this is something I would never forget in my life. He just asked me, you're the good pilot up there. What do you really want? You want to go very fast in the wrong direction or slowly in the good direction? And this is why you need weathermen. This is why you need people with long-term vision.

So we went down actually. We slowed down, and we went through moments of fears because we had no idea how the little amount of gas we had in the balloon could allow us to travel 45,000 kilometers. But we accepted to have doubts. We accepted to have fears. And actually this is where the adventure really started.

RAZ: Which brings us back to Bertrand's idea for the future of transportation because on that flight, that balloon flight in 1999, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Bertrand and his partner, Brian Jones, were struggling to find the jet stream that would take them across the ocean. And they were burning way too much fuel.


PICCARD: We're a little afraid - little afraid, Brian and I. We talked about it - have the butterflies in the stomach.

RAZ: So this is audio from a recording Bertrand made inside the capsule at the time drifting over the ocean. And when they finally touched down in the Egyptian desert after 20 days...


PICCARD: It's fabulous. Thank you.

RAZ: Bertrand and his partner looked at a line of frost on their last fuel tank. And they realized just how close they came to not making it.


BRIAN JONES: That's how much fuel we've got left.

PICCARD: After three weeks?

JONES: After three weeks.

PICCARD: And 40,000 kilometers.

JONES: What a wonderful piece of planning on our behalf.

RAZ: So it was almost empty when you landed.

PICCARD: Yeah, absolutely. There were probably two more hours of duration after 20 days of flight.


PICCARD: When I saw that, I made a promise to myself. I made the promise that the next time I would fly around the world, it would be with no fuel - independent from fossil energies - in order to be safe, not to be threatened by the fuel gauge. I had no idea how it was possible. I just thought it's a dream, and I want to do it.

And when the capsule of my balloon was introduced officially in the Air and Space Museum in Washington together with the airplane of Charles Lindbergh, with Apollo 11, with the Wright Brothers' flyer, with Chuck Yeager's X-1, I had really felt that. I thought, wow, the 20th century, that was brilliant. It allowed to do all this things there, but it would not be possible in the future anymore.

It takes too much energy. It will cost too much. It will be prohibited because we'll have to save our natural resources in a few decades from now. So how can we perpetrate this pioneering spirit with something that will be independent from fossil energy?

Pioneering spirit for me means to observe what we have learned to do and what we have learned to think and to believe and try something else. It's an active disruptive behavior from what we have learned to what we would like to achieve.

RAZ: And that disruptive thing for Bertran, an airplane that flies day and night entirely on solar energy. He's already flown it across the U.S. And next year, over the course of five months, Bertrand Piccard plans to fly that plane - that's called the Solar Impulse - he plans to fly it around the world. And he wants to prove that a new revolution in transportation technology is actually within reach.


PICCARD: So the idea is that if we fly around the world in a solar-powered airplane using absolutely no fuel, nobody ever could say in the future that it's impossible to do it for cars, for heating system, for computers and so on and so on. And this is exactly the symbol of our world. If our airplane is too heavy, if the pilot wastes his energy, we'll never make it through the night.

And in our world, if we keep on spoiling, wasting our energy and resources, if we keep on building things that consume so much energy, that's most of the companies now go bankrupt. It's clear that we'll never give the planet to the next generation without a major problem.

So you see that this airplane is more a symbol. I don't think it will transport 200 people in the next years. But when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, the payload was also just sufficient for one person and some fuel. And 20 years later, there were 200 people in every airplane crossing the Atlantic. People will tell you it's impossible, and it's exactly why we try to do it.

And in 50 years, if we still need to use fuel, air travel will be in trouble - really in trouble because we'll be in a world of renewable energies where there will be either a lot of restrictions and regulations about fossil energy or maybe just a price of fossil energy that will be so high that people won't use it anymore.

RAZ: Do you see - like, can you imagine a future where we get around, either locally or transcontinentally, like, through solar power - like, solar power will generate the energy to move us around?

PICCARD: I would be crazy to say yes and stupid to say no because today we don't have the technology to move everybody on solar power. But don't forget, when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, he was alone on board. And we had to wait for maybe 25 or 30 more years before they could become commercial airliners. So we just have to insufflate the pioneering spirit, which means to open new doors. We have to understand now that we have to be open to change. All the people who fight to keep their old technologies are people who will disappear.

RAZ: Bertrand Piccard's talk can be found at ted.npr.org. You can also check out what his team is up to at solarimpulse.com. Our show today, transport for a crowded planet. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.