Podcast Episode 44: Ballooning to the North Pole


In 1897, Swedish patent engineer S.A. Andrée set out in a quixotic bid to reach the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon, departing from Norway with two companions and hoping to drift over the top of the world and come down somewhere in the Bering Strait. Instead the expedition vanished. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn what happened to the Eagle and its three brave passengers, and consider the role of hindsight in the writing of history.

We’ll also learn what the White House planned to do if Neil Armstrong became stranded on the moon, and puzzle over why seeing a plane flying upside down would impact a woman’s job.

Sources for our segment on S.A. Andrée’s attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon:

Henri Lachambre and Alexis Machuron, Andrée and His Balloon, 1898.

George Palmer Putnam, Andrée: The Record of a Tragic Adventure, 1930.

Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geology, Andrée’s Story, 1930.

Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geology, The Andrée Diaries, 1931.

Alec Wilkinson, The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration, 2011.


Here’s the Eagle after its downfall, as recorded by Nils Strindberg’s cartographic camera. Even if he’d succeeded, Andrée’s bid would have tested the limits of balloon flight: 750 miles separated Spitzbergen from the pole, and the three men would have had to cross another thousand miles to reach the Bering Strait. To get to the pole and then return safely to land in almost any direction would have meant traveling 1,500 miles aloft, and a balloon must travel almost always directly to leeward.

Here’s the eulogy that William Safire prepared for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the event they became stranded on the moon in July 1969:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

The last line is an allusion to Rupert Brooke’s 1914 poem “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent these associated links (warning — they spoil the puzzle).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!