Image: National Museum of Science and Industry

FIRST ASCENT. Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes ascended above Paris on November 21, 1783.
The history of balloon flight dates to 1783, when two French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, discovered that filling a bag with hot air would cause it to rise. They demonstrated their principle at Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783, with an unmanned balloon made of linen and paper. Amazed villagers watched as it rose to an altitude nearing 6,000 feet and landed in a field about a mile away. Just months later, on November 21, Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes became the first humans to fly in a man-made craft when they ascended from the center of Paris in a Montgolfier balloon.

Early hot-air balloons had to be fueled on the ground (or carry dangerous open fires aloft) and, rather inconveniently, they came back down when they cooled. So they were soon replaced by envelopes filled with buoyant gases, such as hydrogen and helium. These balloons continued to rack up records for long-duration flights.

Balloons were used by the military as observation posts (and a few fairly futile attempts to drop bombs) and have a rich history of carrying scientific payloads into the upper atmosphere. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration operates a Scientific Ballooning Program that has collected data about cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere.

But when it comes to controlled long-distance flight, gas-filled balloons are also limited. As the sun heats the gas in the envelope, the balloon rises uncontrollably and so gas has to be vented; when the gas cools, the balloon sinks and pilots must drop ballast to maintain altitude. Sooner or later, they run out of gas or ballast and the journey is over.

The problem was solved in the 1960s when Edward Yost equipped a balloon with an onboard propane burner. This device allows pilots to control the balloon's buoyancy by changing the amount of heat injected into the envelope. His innovation created the present boom in sport ballooning and opened the prospect of an around-the-world flight.

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