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September 1997

Basket Cases

Wicker baskets and seat cushions doubled as crash helmets “in case of a sudden landing,” according to “Ballooning in the Stratosphere” in our March 1933 issue. Though temperatures in the spherical aluminum gondola sometimes topped 100 F, Swiss physicist August Piccard (right) and his assistant, Paul Kipfer, stayed cool enough to conduct their studies of cosmic rays as they ascended nearly ten miles (16 kilometers) above Augsburg, Germany, on the morning of May 27, 1931. The pair landed safely on an Austrian glacier that same evening. A previous try had been less succesful. “I was the target for derisive stories,” wrote Piccard of that attempt. “The absent-minded professor had made an error in his calculation, and consequently the balloon, instead of ascending ten miles (16 kilometers), rose only ten feet (3 meters).”
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Photograph by Wide World Photos