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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The late 19th century saw scores of celebrated, valorous attempts for men to reach the North Pole. Groups of explorers from the U.S., Europe and Scandinavia invented clever new equipment, they raised bales of money, stirred national pride and enthralled the world by attempting to march, sail or sled to the most cold, remote and unseen place on Earth.

A Swedish man named S.A. Andree decided to try to fly above all that. In 1897, Andree and his crew of two, Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel, set out for the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon.

The story of their journey, S.A. Andree and that age of Arctic exploration is told in Alec Wilkinson's new book, "The Ice Balloon."

Mr. Wilkinson, a longtime writer for The New Yorker, joins us from New York. Thanks for being with us.

ALEC WILKINSON: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: You come up with an astonishing statistic in the book. At least a thousand people tried to reach the North Pole before 1930. How many of them died?

WILKINSON: Seven hundred and fifty-one.

SIMON: So, undertaking a mission was statistically, at any rate, a foolish thing to do.

WILKINSON: It was certainly to have to summon all the courage one possessed, and a great deal of both visionary and pioneer thinking.

SIMON: S.A. Andree worked in the Swedish patent office. He was desk-bound.

WILKINSON: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: So what made him an explorer?

WILKINSON: He had this obsessive idea to reach this place by this unconventional means, which would be extraordinarily efficient. I mean his study of the weather and the winds and so forth persuaded him that he'd be there in fewer than 60 hours. I think he must have been semi-facetious, but he sort of joked that he would, you know, having flown over the Pole, he would descend in San Francisco.

And he had a tuxedo with him so that he could, at the end, meet the dignitaries that he imagined would be waiting for him - although he really believed that he was going to end up somewhere in the Yukon or the Siberian wilderness and would have to walk back to civilization.

SIMON: What happened when the balloon was launched?

WILKINSON: The reason that he thought - the reason Andree thought that he could make it to the Pole was that he had believed he had designed a balloon that could be steered. Hot air balloons and hydrogen balloons, of course, can only go where the wind blows them. But Andree had constructed a special system of heavy ropes that lay on the ground and were dragged, that would sort of impede the balloon and cause it to travel slower than the air. And as soon as you're traveling slower than the air - as in a sailboat, for example - you can steer yourself because you can put up a sail.

So as he took off, the ropes tangled, became untangled, and he lost them. And so he sailed off over the horizon in a balloon he wasn't able to steer.

SIMON: Can you tell from this distance of time, should he have turned back as soon as those lines were cut? Should he have said no, this isn't the way to do it?

WILKINSON: One would think so. But it's important to remember, the context was this, which is that he had the support of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. He had the support of the king of Sweden. He had tried to leave in 1896 but hadn't got favorable winds. He gets back to Spitsbergen in 1897, knowing pretty much that this will more or less be his last chance. Faced with the thought, if I don't go now, I may never go again, and I will never know the mystery. I think it overtook him. His rationality, his engineering mind succumbed to a certain degree, like a temptation one finally submits to, to the idea of: I must.

SIMON: Mr. Wilkinson, how much do we know about what happened after the balloon left the sight of reporters from around the world who'd gathered there on this island off of Spitsbergen?

WILKINSON: Well, the strange circumstance is that Andree sailed over the horizon and was lost. He became, he and his companions became the first men ever to be lost in the air. Astonishingly, 33 years later, he was discovered. His last camp was discovered by sealers. With Andree were found diaries that they had kept of what had become a death march across the ice and furthermore, and even more astonishingly, were found films that had been unexposed, taken along the way on the expedition. So 33 years later, suddenly, as if they had almost come back from the afterlife, these men were vivid again in the world's imaginations.

SIMON: They didn't reach the Pole?

WILKINSON: They did not reach the Pole, no.

SIMON: What happened? Do we know?

WILKINSON: Well, they flew for three days. They began, though; they ran into trouble with fog that is always a perilous circumstance for a balloon because any shadow causes the gas to cool. And once the gas cools, the balloon descends. And they were eventually, after three days of flight and several hundred miles, brought to the ice. And they were suddenly no longer explorers - they were adventurers. And no explorer wants to be an adventurer.

SIMON: I mean this turned what had been conceived of as a mission to fly above all that and to soar over the Pole into a conventional slog...

WILKINSON: Yes.

SIMON: ...with three people who were ill-equipped.

WILKINSON: Pretty much. You had three guys with desk jobs from Stockholm who hadn't done a whole lot of preparation. They really did not expect to come down. It was a thuggish and punishing journey that was ahead of them, made much more horrible by the fact that as they advanced, the ice moved in the other direction beneath them - because, of course, the ice is drifting. The polar ice pack moves.

SIMON: In the end, where do you weigh the balance between bravery and foolishness of Andree's mission?

WILKINSON: It's a fascinating question, isn't it? If the Wright Brothers had crashed and died, would they be madmen? But that's sort of the problem with being a pioneer, is that when you're the very first person to step off into space and off the edge of the earth there are perils awaiting you that you can't quite imagine.

And the thing about pursuits such as Andree's is that they are the results of obsession. And once any of us steps into the realm of obsession we have constantly to wonder: are we being right? It's usually determined by the failure or success of the thing that happened to these people, but some people fail very honorably and certainly, Andree's failure was honorable.

SIMON: Mr. Wilkinson, thanks so much.

WILKINSON: Well, thank you.

SIMON: Alec Wilkinson, his new book, "The Ice Balloon." You can read an excerpt at NPR.org.

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