Do you know what Albuquerque, New Mexico is most known for? Some would say “where Bugs Bunny should have turned left” and others may even say the TV show Breaking Bad. But, before either of those were popular for Albuquerque, one of the things it was famous for was and still is hot air balloons. So, what better place to have an International Balloon Museum than Albuquerque?
Did you know that hot air balloons were the devices that allowed man to first fly? Did you know that studying balloons and doing tests in them paved the way for our space program? Did you know that a balloon was the platform for the highest altitude parachute jump in history? Neither did I! Hot air balloons have been a significant and important part in the history of our aerospace industry.
I learned all of that at the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum. It is located at 9201 Balloon Museum Dr NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico. I honestly do not know what the admission price is. We went on a Sunday in the late morning and got in free. There is free admission from 9am to 1pm every Sunday. We went in June. I would suggest that you schedule things so that you do not try to visit during October. That is when they have a big Balloon Festival. By comparison, the parking lot had a couple of cars in it. However, we saw lanes that said “Trams Only” and a whole heck of a lot more parking. So, plan accordingly.
When you enter the museum, it opens up into a two-story open view with a blimp and balloons of all shapes and sizes in the background. The git shop is immediately to the right. You will want to go straight. This is where it begins the story of the flight of the first hot air balloon. It was September 19, 1783. The King of France, King Louie XVI, was worried about the safety of men in this new contraption, so he insisted on farm animals. So, the first animals to fly in a hot air balloon were a duck, a sheep and a rooster. Don’t worry, the animals landed safely.
From there, now that it was known that this can actually work, more and more people began to experiment with the hot air balloons. They used them for enjoying the views, travel, people would do tricks from them for entertainment and more. One man, Nadar Gaspar-Felix Tournachon, mounted a camera to the basket of the balloon and took the first aerial photograph 1200 feet over Paris, France in 1858. Men and women alike jumped into the ballooning world. And the museum goes into great detail telling you about each of them that were important in the history of the industry.
I also learned that a hot air balloon can lift about a 1/4 of an ounce for every cubic foot of hot air. So, in order to life one pound, you would need 64 cubic feet of air. That is a 4 foot x 4 foot x 4 foot cube of hot air for one pound of weight. To lift 1000 pounds, you need about 65,000 cubic feet of hot air. That is why they are so big. The average hot air balloon is 70,000 to 90,000 cubic feet. That is big enough to fit 22 or more grown elephants inside!
In addition, they began to experiment with different gases due to their ability to lift. For example, if you have a balloon that has 1000 cubic feet of space, the following gases are able to lift the corresponding weights:
- Hot Air 26 pounds
- Ammonia 31.7 pounds
- Natural Gas 44.2 pounds
- Helium 66 pounds
- Hydrogen 71.2 pounds
So, you can see, it would be preferred to have hydrogen in the balloon to be able to lift the most. However, once the hydrogen is gone, you cannot just pick up and go again. So, hot air is the most versatile if you have an actual heat source.
Balloons developed from the common light bulb shape into long cylindrical shapes we call blimps. The USA even had a handful (4 to be exact) of them in military service: USS Shenandoah, USS Los Angeles, USS Akron and USS Macon. They used them for training, airmail delivery and fleet maneuvers. Every single one of them were lost in weather-related incidents.
Now, when I say blimp, most people think of one of two popular ones. We have the Goodyear Blimp. This is the blimp seen flying high over sports stadiums in the United States. It commonly is displaying some kind of electronic message on its side.
Then we have the infamous and less happy blimp, the Hindenburg. On May 6, 1937, a German airship, the Hindenburg, came from Germany and attempted to dock with a mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in Manchester Township, New Jersey. The blimp caught on fire and, because it was filled with hydrogen (very flammable) the whole blimp went up in a great ball of flames. There were 97 people on board. 35 died on the blimp and one ground crew perished.
Now then, in the 19050’s, the United States Government wanted to do tests at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. Where do you think they turned to? Yep. Balloons again. They launched a 1200 pound aluminum, sphere gondola attached to a helium gas balloon to explore the Stratosphere. It was used to test cosmic ray detection, space suit development and planetary research.
Then, on August 16, 1960, Captain Joe Kittinger took the Excelsior III up. It was a helium gas balloon. And when I say up, I mean waaaaay up! He ascended 102,800 feet (31,333 m) and it took him one hour and 31 minutes to achieve this height. Kittinger maintained this peak altitude for 12 minutes until he was over the landing target area. Then this courageous man stepped out of the gondola to begin his descent. He free fell for over 4 minutes until his stabilizer parachute opened. He reached speeds of over 614 miles per hour (988 km/h) and subjected to temperatures as low as −94 °F (−70 °C). Then at 17,500 feet (5,334 m) Kittinger opened his main chute and landed in the New Mexico desert. The whole descent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds and set a world record for the highest parachute jump. Here is a clip of that historic jump.
I never knew how significant balloons were to our aeronautic and aerospace futures. Come to find out, they were absolutely integral. The museum actually has a short film that talks about the importance of balloons as it pertains to space flight. It is worth watching. In addition, there are more displays and stories about people who flew balloons through the arctic, across continents and more.
The museum was definitely an eye opening experience for me and the Nomads. We never knew balloons had such a fascinating history. If you are anywhere near New Mexico, it is worth the trip to stop in and check this place out. Allow yourself 2 to 3 hours and don’t go in October unless you want to fight crowds. Safe Travels.