Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1842:
FIRST MAN IN SPACE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the first man in space. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Who was the first man in space? Well, Yuri Gagarin, of course. Still, you've heard me talk about priority. In this case, I have a problem in deciding what to call space.

Our atmosphere trails off exponentially. As we rise, it grows thinner and thinner. But there's still a tiny bit of air pressure, even around the International Space Station. It's only some three quadrillionths of sea level pressure; but it's not zero, and it does exert drag. So, are those astronauts really in space?

Chemist Gay-Lussac set a balloon altitude record in 1804 — he claimed to've reached 23,000 feet (although his estimate may've been high). And breathing apparatus had yet to be invented. I'm sure it felt like space, even though it wasn't as high as people go today when they climb Everest without oxygen tanks. On the other hand, you'd hardly say that you were in space riding a jet plane at half again Gay-Lussac's altitude.

The world record for a manned balloon ascent is presently 22 miles, where the air pressure is one fiftieth of its value down here. But, as a child, I was very aware of the record-breaking balloon flights being made by Jean and Jeanette Piccard. In 1934, they reached an altitude of eleven miles. Later, Life magazine ran a photo they'd taken on one of their flights. It showed inky black sky above, and the arc of Earth's horizon in the distance.

I don't know whether the namesake of Star Trek's Jean Luc Picard was one of these Piccards or a seventeenth-century astronomer. But I like to think it was the Piccards who so touched my childhood. They certainly were space travelers in my eyes.

Still, all human space travel has, so far, taken place within Earth's influence. It has stayed either within the fringes of our atmosphere, or well within the reach of Earth's gravity field. The gravitational force that drives the orbital path of the Space Station is very little less up there, than it is at Earth's surface.

The few humans who've walked on the moon seemed to've escaped Earth's gravity field, and entered into the Moon's lesser gravity. But that's an illusion. For the moon's orbit is dictated just as surely by our gravity as the Space Station's orbit is.

So I offer a contrarian answer to the question, "Who was first in space?" The question has not yet been answered. Maybe it'll be your daughter. I'm waiting to see us step clear of Earth's gravity as well as its atmosphere. I'm waiting for us to truly begin our great adventure in space.

My father, a St. Paul Dispatch science editor, told me about his conversations with Jean and Jeanette Piccard, over in Minneapolis. I still see the curve of Earth in Piccard photos, and (with apologies to Yuri Gagarin) they'll remain my first travelers in space until we do what we were meant to do -- until we finally step clear of our Island home.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


There were three Piccards exploring both the stratosphere and the ocean depths in the 1930s. They were twin brothers, Drs. Auguste and Jean Piccard, and Jean's wife, Dr. Jeaneatte Piccard. In 1974, Jeanette Piccard became one of the first women ordained as an Episcopal priest. Astronomer Jean Picard lived from 1620 to 1682 in France. Star Trek's Jean Luc Picard [was] also born in France, in AD 2305.

For more on Jean Piccard, see:
http://www.aem.umn.edu/info/history/piccard.shtml

For more on Jeanette Piccard, see:
http://www.itdean.umn.edu/inventing/98fall/retrospect.html

For a convenient calculation of high-altitude barometric pressures, see:
http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/kinetic/barfor.html


Space, the final frontier!
Space! The final Frontier.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.