The caged duck looked down as terra firma slowly drifted away. Above the duck, a balloon, constructed of paper and fabric, provided the lift necessary to carry aloft the duck and its companions, a sheep and a rooster. Never before had a human, let alone a duck, flown in a balloon.
The year was 1783, a milestone year for aviation—the dream of flying had finally been realized. On October 15 of that year, a few months after the duck's historic flight, a balloon called Aerostat Reveillon, launched in France and carrying scientist Jean-François Pilâtre De Rozier, rose to the end of its 250-foot tether. It stayed aloft for 15 minutes and then landed safely nearby. A month later, De Rozier and a companion, the Marquis d'Arlandes, flew untethered to 500 feet and traveled about five and a half miles in a 20-minute flight—the first "free flight" made by man.
Designed by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-ítienne, the balloon was heated by a straw fire that later caused the balloon to catch on fire. But the Montgolfier brothers, undaunted, went on to design other balloons, including the first successful balloon that was unmanned (and unducked, for that matter).
Although these early, comparatively crude balloons were a far cry from today's high-tech contraptions, the science of ballooning and sending humans aloft had begun. In the years to follow, humans had access to the skies like never before, and with the advent of hydrogen ballooning, even the sky seemed to offer no limit. What follows is a brief outline of some of the major milestones in ballooning:
1785—First Across the English Channel: In the early days of ballooning, crossing the English Channel is considered the first step to long-distance ballooning. Two years after his historic first balloon ride, De Rozier attempts the crossing. De Rozier's experimental system consists of a hydrogen balloon and a hot air balloon tied together. Tragically, the craft explodes half an hour after takeoff, and de Rozier and his copilot are killed. This double balloon helium/hot air system, however, remains among the most successful designs for long-distance ballooning. This same year, French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries become the first to fly across the English Channel.
1793—First Flight in North America: On January 9, Jean-Pierre Blanchard makes a 45-minute flight from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Gloucester County, New Jersey. George Washington is present to see the balloon launch.
1794 to 1945—First Use in Wars: From the U.S. Civil War through World Wars I and II, balloons come into play as tools for warfare, surveillance, transportation, and communication.
1932—First Manned Flight to Stratosphere, and First Use of Pressurized Capsule: On August 18, Auguste Piccard, a Swiss scientist, and a companion, Max Cosyns, soar into the stratosphere in a balloon designed by Piccard that includes a pressurized aluminum gondola. The pair set a new altitude record of over 52,000 feet. Over the next few years, in the push to reach ever higher into the stratosphere, balloonists continue to break altitude records almost monthly.
1935—New Altitude Record Set, Remains For 20 Years: Explorer II, a helium gas balloon, sets the altitude record at 72,395 feet, or 13.7 miles, with two crew members on board, Captain Albert Stevens and Orvil Anderson. This flight serves as a milestone for aviation and paves the way for future space travel and the concept of manned flight in space. The highly publicized flight is also able to carry live radio broadcasts from the balloon.
1960—Altitude Record and Highest Parachute Jump: On August 16, Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger jumps from a balloon at a breathtaking altitude of 102,800 feet (19.4 miles). Kittinger sets a world high-altitude parachute jump and freefall record that still stands today.
1961—Current Official Altitude Record Set: Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather of the U.S. Navy ascend to 113,739.9 feet in Lee Lewis Memorial, a polyethylene balloon. They land in the Gulf of Mexico where, with his pressure suit filling with water and unable to stay afloat, Prather drowns.
1978—First Atlantic Crossing: Double Eagle II, a helium balloon carrying Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman, becomes the first balloon to cross the Atlantic Ocean. A new duration record is set, with a flight time of 137 hours.
1981—First Pacific Crossing: Thirteen-story-high Double Eagle V, piloted by Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark, and Rocky Aoki of Japan, launches from Nagashimi, Japan on November 10 and lands 84 hours, 31 minutes later in Mendocino National Forest in California. A new distance record is set at 5,768 miles.
1984—First Solo Transatlantic Flight: Joe Kittinger flies 3,535 miles from Caribou, Maine to Savona, Italy in his helium-filled balloon Rosie O'Grady's Balloon of Peace.
1987—First Atlantic Crossing By Hot Air Balloon: Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson fly a distance of 2,900 miles in 33 hours and set a new record for hot air ballooning. At the time, the balloon, with 2.3 million cubic feet of capacity, is the largest ever flown.
1988—Hot Air High Altitude Record: Per Lindstrand sets a solo world record of 65,000 feet for the greatest height ever reached by a hot air balloon.
1991—First Pacific Crossing By Hot Air Balloon: Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson become the first to traverse the Pacific by hot air balloon, flying from Japan to Arctic Canada in 46 hours. Reaching speeds in the jet stream of up to 245 mph in their Otsuka Flyer, they travel 6,700 miles, breaking the world distance record.
1992—Duration Record Set: Richard Abruzzo, son of previous record-breaker Ben Abruzzo, and Troy Bradley fly 144 hours, 16 minutes from Bangor, Maine to Morocco in a De Rozier balloon.
1995—First Solo Transpacific Flight: On February 14, Steve Fossett launches from Seoul, Korea and flies four long days to Mendham, Saskatchewan, Canada.
This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Danger in the Jet Stream.