Most children grow up hearing their parents tell them fairy tales. For me, the stories were about exploration. I listened, captivated, to the tales my father told me about conquests of the poles, of Everest, space and the ocean depths. I learnt all about my grandfather Auguste’s ascensions into the stratosphere; he was the first to see the curvature of the Earth with his own eyes, and had invented the principle of the pressurised capsule, which now allows all aircraft to fly at high altitude. He also invented the bathyscaphe, in which my father made innumerable dives, culminating in the legendary Mariana Trench exploit – with Don Walsh, ‘Uncle Don’ as I knew him, reaching the deepest point anywhere on the ocean floor.
The names that I heard every day at home were the likes of Scott Carpenter, Wernher von Braun, Bob Ballard and Jacques Mayol; they were my childhood heroes. But what really changed my life was meeting them all in person. I discovered that what I had heard were not just good stories, but real events: more fantastic than any fairy tales. And then I witnessed, with my own eyes, at Cape Kennedy, six Apollo launches.
My grandfather held an Explorers Club card – my father, too. So why not me? I decided to become an explorer in July 1969. I can remember the moment exactly; I was 12 years old. My father had just gone on board the Ben Franklin mesoscaphe, which he had built to study the Gulf Stream. He was about to drift for a month along the east coast of the USA, covering almost 1,500 miles. A few days later, I was present – filled with wonder – at the launch of Apollo 11. Destination: the Moon. I felt I was experiencing the most significant event in the history of humanity.
People often ask me how to become an explorer. In reality, you don’t necessarily decide what you are going to explore, you just decide to leave the well-trodden path and take the side roads, to seize every opportunity to do what others dare not do, or find impossible. Is it the same for all explorers? I don’t know. But in any case that’s how I have lived my life, following a guiding thread in my childhood dreams.
When hang gliders and ultralights reached Europe, I started flying them and later accepted a co-pilot position, winning the first transatlantic balloon race (the ‘Chrysler Challenge’). As a natural next step I initiated the Breitling Orbiter project, and after completing the first ever non-stop round-the-world balloon flight with my friend Brian Jones, in 1999, I came to understand that what had been my ultimate goal for six years was in fact only an opportunity to go further. Solar Impulse, and the vision of flying round the world in a solar airplane, without a single drop of fuel, had just been born.
Already today, my colleague André Borschberg and I have succeeded in carrying out the first intercontinental solar flights between Europe and Africa, carrying with us the Explorers Club flag, incidentally. Our airplane has successfully stayed airborne for 26 hours – more than a complete day-night cycle. Energy from the sun proved adequate to drive the four electric motors whilst simultaneously charging the batteries. This allowed the flight to continue throughout the night, until the sun rose to power the next day’s flight, thereby coming closer to the goal of perpetual flight. It’s unlikely that a solar airplane will ever carry 300 passengers; but it’s the symbol of change that’s important here.
It is easy to arouse enthusiasm for great adventures. The public is keen to be associated with the dreams of pioneers and explorers. A solar airplane flying day and night to complete a trip around the world could be a potent symbol. If it’s possible to do it without fossil fuels, in the air, then nobody can claim it’s impossible to do it on the ground, in our society, for our vehicles, our houses, our heating systems, our air conditioning and lighting. The aim is to mobilise a wave of enthusiasm for clean technologies that will lead to energy savings, and generate positive emotions towards renewable energies. We need to direct public attention to the changes that are vital to secure the future of our planet, and make clear that its protection is something positive and stimulating.
That’s why, as explorers, we have a responsibility towards others: if we want to be worthy of those who came before us, it’s our duty to do everything we can to make the world a better place.