Balloon Pilot Hopes New Solar Plane Will Succeed in Cleaner Skies

For aviators Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, it's not about the plane.

"Our goal," said Piccard, the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon, "is not to make a revolution in air transportation, but a revolution in the mindset toward technology."

Ten years ago Piccard and Borschberg set out to build a solar-powered plane that can fly at day or night, requires no fossil fuels and never needs to be plugged in. They succeeded in 2009. In July 2010, the plane completed its first marathon flight, taking off from a Swiss airfield and returning 26 hours later. It has also flown from Switzerland to Spain and then Morocco. In May, the plane will begin a series of promotional flights, from San Francisco, to Washington and New York. 

In two years, Piccard and Bertrand hope to accomplish their greatest feat yet: to fly their craft, called the Solar Impulse, around the globe without stopping. They place their achievement "somewhere between the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh,” Piccard said.

The upcoming U.S. flights are designed to attract sponsors and public attention in the country that invented manned flight. The team has raised about $120 million from European sponsors and nothing from Americans.

"America is the country where aviation started," Piccard said. "It understands what aviation is and has a pioneering spirit. It would not be the same in another country."

The Solar Impulse project already counts among its long list of business partners Schindler Holding, a Swiss elevator and escalator company, Solvay, a Belgian chemicals company, and Omega, a Swiss watchmaker and Deutsche Bank. Other notable backers include U.S. solar panel maker SunPower, Toyota Motors and Swiss Re.

Piccard, who comes from a long line of explorers , said he was inspired decades ago by NASA’s Apollo Program and was disappointed that more astronauts didn’t use their celebrity to promote science.

"When I met former astronauts, I was sometimes disappointed that they never came back and stood up for an important issue," he said. "The more people who stand up for something like that, the better."

They point to Elon Musk as an example of a science and technology leader. The entrepreneur has started two technology companies: Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Tesla is building luxury electric sports cars, and SpaceX recently docked its second spacecraft delivering supplies to the International Space Station. "These people that try new things deserve our respect," said Piccard. 

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