As a boy, Bertrand Piccard traveled to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to watch the launch of an Apollo mission. As formative experiences go, it’s up there. The roar of thrusters, burning bright; the arc of the rocket piercing the sky, heading for the depths of space. These are things one doesn’t forget. Especially if, like Piccard, you watched six launches while still a child.
Now aged 62, the Swiss aviator told CNN seeing those launches made him want to become an explorer. But that decision was perhaps inevitable.
The Piccards may be the world’s premier dynasty of explorers. The young Bertrand was at Cape Canaveral (called Cape Kennedy at that time) because his father, Jacques, was a renowned engineer and oceanographer who collaborated with NASA. Jacques was the son of Auguste, similarly renowned as an aeronaut, inventor and physicist. The family also includes the first person to fly across the English Channel in a balloon, and the first people to pilot a stratospheric flight through clouds.
It’s no coincidence Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the starship Enterprise in “Star Trek,” bears a version of the name – Bertrand’s great uncle reportedly inspired the character. “To boldly go where no one has gone before” might as well be the family motto.
Yet Bertrand did not start out as an explorer. The boy who grew up meeting aviator Charles Lindbergh, mountaineer Edmund Hillary and “most” of the astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, became a practicing psychiatrist, specializing in hypnosis.
Eventually he took to ballooning like a true Piccard: in March 1999, he and copilot Brian Jones went around the world in just short of 20 days, the first time anyone had circumnavigated the world non-stop in a balloon.
“All my childhood, everybody was asking me, ‘Are you going to follow in the footsteps of your father and grandfather?’” he recalls. “I (became) a bit fed up of these questions.” After that flight, “I was credible,” he says. “I had done my part in the family tradition. I was free in a way to really do what I wanted in a useful way.”
For Piccard, that meant combining his passion for flying with a desire to help the environment. “I am a big supporter of everything that makes life better on Earth,” he says, “clean technologies, renewable energies – everything that can respect nature and guarantee a better future for humankind.”
In 2003, his solar-powered airplane project Solar Impulse was quite literally a vehicle for change. “I wanted to change the paradigm in aviation,” Piccard says.
“I have a compass in my heart, I think, with a needle showing the unknown,” he explains. “Each time something was not done, that no one considered possible, I thought this was worth trying.”
Alongside Swiss engineer and pilot André Borschberg, he developed an aircraft that flew for 26 hours nonstop over Switzerland in 2010 (the first time a solar airplane had flown through the night).
The second iteration of the airplane had the weight of a car, a wingspan larger than a jumbo jet and the power of a scooter, says Piccard. It was not easy to fly, he adds. Solar Impulse 2 took off in March 2015 in Abu Dhabi and completed its circumnavigation in July 2016. The journey was broken down into 17 stages, with one, from Nagoya, Japan, to Kalaeloa, Hawaii, lasting 118 hours – the longest-duration solo flight ever undertaken.
“I think the main result of Solar Impulse was the fact that key decision makers started to understand that renewable energies and key technologies can achieve impossible goals,” reflects Piccard.
Today Piccard uses his platform to push for a greener economy. “Thirty, 20 years ago, the protection of the environment was presented as something boring and expensive,” he says. “Now it’s finally coming (in)to the mindset of the key decision makers in this world that protection of the environment can be exciting and can be profitable.”
“The planet will survive; humankind is at risk,” he says. “We are so stupid in general as humankind. We are destroying our environment, destroying our natural resources, poisoning the air and the rivers. Just putting ourselves in a situation where life will be more and more difficult. It’s crazy.”
Piccard’s Solar Impulse Foundation supports around 400 for-profit organizations offering green solutions. The aim is to promote 1,000 solutions in total with the help of Piccard’s considerable platform.
Piccard spoke to CNN in the Rhone Valley, southern France, where Akuo Energy, one of the companies it supports, has built a 17-hectare floating solar farm it says is capable of powering over 5,000 homes.
“We (as a sector) will not succeed if we don’t change the storytelling,” says Eric Scotto, chairman and co-founder of Akuo Energy. “And to tell a good story, you need a good storyteller. Bertrand is opening doors … What he’s doing right now is absolutely essential for people like us.”
If Piccard’s vision is ahead of the game, the suggestion is we will all eventually catch up. He’d just prefer we reached his conclusions sooner. “Even if climate change (did) not exist … we should go for these efficient and clean solutions, because they are logical as much as ecological,” says Piccard.
“It is really the world of tomorrow that we can already have today.”