Black and white photo of Henry Ford talking to Jean and Jeannette Piccard in front of the gondola to the balloon used in their Stratosphere Flight, as cosmic ray researcher Dr. William Francis Gray Swann peeks out through the gondola’s hatch.
On October 23, 1934, the husband-and-wife team of Jean and Jeannette Piccard navigated a balloon as high as 10.9 miles above the earth, starting from Dearborn, Michigan, and landing many hours later hundreds of miles away in Ohio. This flight reached the stratosphere.
Along for the ride was Jean’s pet turtle, Fleur de Lys. The couple’s two sons – Don, 8, and Paul, 10 – were among the 45,000 spectators who witnessed the takeoff at the Ford Airport in Dearborn, Mich.
“I was nervous right after the take-off,” Jeannette Piccard told a United Press reporter. “The wind bumped the gondola around a great deal, but before long we began to ascend rapidly and when we got into the upper air it was very calm. We hardly seemed to be moving, but I guess that sometimes we must have been drifting at 90 miles an hour or more.”
Jeannette Piccard’s flight set the women’s altitude record, and held it for 29 years, until Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 became the first woman in space, orbiting the Earth 48 times solo in the Soviet Union’s Vostok 6. According to the editors of Flying magazine, in their book Sport Flying, published by Ziff-Davis in 1976, Jeannette was “the first woman in space, a claim allowed even by Valentina Tereshkova.” She was also the first woman to pilot a flight to the stratosphere, and according to her obituary in The New York Times, the first person to do so through a layer of clouds.
The Henry Ford has digitized about 40 photographs and documents related to the flight. Here are some reposted by the Detroit Historical Society.
Ellice Engdahl, “Just Added to Our Digital Collections: Piccards’ Flight”, Henry Ford Blog, January 20, 2014.
Ben Welter, “Oct. 23, 1934: Journey to the edge of space”, Star Tribune, October 18, 2010.