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On September 6, 1522, a Spanish carrack named Nao Victoria arrived in the coastal waters of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain. Although carracks were a common sight on the Atlantic, the Victoria was one-of-kind because it had done something no ship had ever achieved—it had traveled the entire globe.
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Of the original five ships that set out from Spain three years earlier under the command of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, only the Victoria survived the journey. Even Magellan, who originally set out to find western sea routes to Indonesia, didn’t live to see his home country again. It was the Basque navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano who finished what Magellan had started.
The daring adventures and harrowing dangers of the Magellan-Elcano expedition were just a prologue for the next 500 years of exploration, as humans dreamed up new ways to traverse the entire planet, whether by land, sea, air, or beyond. Although all these globe-trotting treks took place in different eras and circumstances, they all required the same three ingredients: bravery, willpower, and unbelievably impressive engineering.
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Nao Victoria (1522): First circumnavigation
For a ship of legend, the Nao Victoria is of humble origins. Originally built as a maritime commerce ship traveling between England and Spain, the aging ship underwent a major retrofit for its globe-trotting journey. The Victoria was “very old and patched up,” a Portuguese consul said in the summer of 1519. “I should be ill inclined to sail in them to the Canaries.” However, the Victoria did have one thing going for it—it was a carrack, one of the most important designs in shipbuilding history.
The multi-mast carrack derives from the single-mast cog that dominated European seafaring in the Middle Ages. The Victoria was built with a carvel-planking method (as opposed to the clinker method) wherein wood planks were laid side-by-side rather than overlapping to increase the ship’s strength. Because of this construction, as well as its larger size, the Victoria could haul men and cargo while remaining stable in the open ocean, a perfect combination for a globe-trotting vessel. Eventually, carracks evolved into the more nimble galleons of the 16th century. In fact, the next circumnavigation of the globe, nearly 60 years after Victoria’s journey, took place aboard Sir Francis Drake’s English galleon named the Golden Hind.
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HMS Driver (1842): First steamship circumnavigation
For 300 years, many more explorers, captains, and crew circumnavigated the globe under various flags, but all those voyages had one thing in common: they relied on the winds. That all changed with the Royal Navy’s HMS Driver, a 1,058-ton, 180-foot-long paddlewheel sloop that traveled the globe from 1842 to 1847. Inside the ship’s bowels was a 280-horsepower direct action steam engine named “Gorgon” (because it was first fitted to the HMS Gorgon in 1837) and boilers that were each fed by a “mechanical stoking apparatus.”
The HMS Driver was the first steamship to ever visit the Land Down Under, and when Australians first spotted the ship in December 1845, they thought it had caught fire due to its billowing smoke. The following year, during a trip to New Zealand, the local Māori gathered to watch the ship “driven by fires” sail against the wind and tide. The HMS Driver’s biggest shortcoming wasn’t its engine, but the coal needed to feed it because bunkering stations in the mid-19th century were few and far between. Due to its voracious diet of combustible rock, the HMS Driver arrived back in England on May 14, 1847, and the Age of Sail came to an end.
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Douglas World Cruisers (1924): First plane circumnavigation
Little more than two decades after Orville Wright flew the world’s first airplane some 180 feet, the U.S. Army Air Service wanted a plane to circumnavigate the globe. The winning design brought together two legends of aviation when industrialist Donald Douglas offered a modified version of his DT bomber with the help of aircraft designer Jack Northrop. Called the Douglas World Cruisers (DWC), the four floatplanes were outfitted with more everything—more wingspan, more cooling capacity, and more fuel. For comparison, the original DT bomber held about 115 gallons of fuel, whereas the DWC could haul 644 gallons thanks to six fuel tanks stored in its wings and fuselage.
The Douglas World Cruisers took off on their historic, round-the-world flight on April 6, 1924, from Seattle, Washington. One of the planes crashed in the Alaskan mountains weeks later (thankfully the crew survived) and a second plane had to be swapped out in Nova Scotia. After flying 27,553 miles, the remaining three DWCs landed in Seattle on September 28 with the entire trip lasting 175 days with 74 stops in 28 countries.
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LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin (1929): First airship circumnavigation
Only five years after the Douglas World Cruisers completed their trans-global flight, a completely different kind of aircraft attempted the same feat. Although the world’s longest airship (at 776 feet) when it was built and a demonstration of the amazing airships to come, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin wasn’t optimally aerodynamic or structurally effective due to size limitations imposed by the physical dimensions of the hangar in Friedrichshafen, Germany. The airship was constructed with girders made from Duralumin (an early kind of aluminum alloy), 17 lifting gas cells, 12 fuel gas cells, and five 550-horsepower engines.
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst sponsored the round-the-world trip, and the Graf Zeppelin began its historic journey on August 7, 1929. Beginning in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the zeppelin traveled to Friedrichshafen to Tokyo to Los Angeles and then finally back to Lakehurst. The entire journey lasted only 21 days.
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Boeing B-50 Lucky Lady II (1949): First nonstop plane circumnavigation
During the 1920s and 30s, airplanes and airships vied for aerial supremacy, but after World War II, the victor was clear: planes were the future of airpower. Four years after the Allied victory, the U.S. decided to show off to a rising Soviet Union that its aerial might could reach anywhere in the world, and what better way to do that than pulling off the world’s first nonstop circumnavigation? The plane selected for the job was a B-50 bomber named Global Queen, but after experiencing engine trouble, the understudy—another B-50 Superfortress named Lucky Lady II—was tasked with making history.
After being outfitted with an extra fuel tank in its bomb bay, the B-50 set off from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 26, 1949. Its name, “Lucky Lady,” was prescient because in order for the mission to succeed, the B-50 needed to perform eight refueling operations (a procedure that’s even dangerous today) at four separate locations. Each operation involved KB-29M Superfortresses stationed around the world to meet up with the Lucky Lady II to top off its fuel tanks. On March 2, after a 94-hour-and-1-minute flight, Lucky Lady II landed safe and sound at Carswell a full two minutes ahead of schedule.
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Half-Safe (1958): First car circumnavigation
In 1950, adventurists Ben and Elinore Carlin set out to drive across the world. There were a few reasons why no one had ever attempted the herculean task, but the big one was that it was physically impossible as large stretches of water kept any vehicle from attempting the journey. But that didn’t stop the Carlins, who in the late 1940s spent $900 to buy an amphibious vehicle nicknamed the “Seep,” which was a seaworthy version of the General Purpose Willys—the automotive workhorse behind the U.S. military in World War II. Carlin then outfitted the dash with aircraft navigational equipment, added a two-way radio, and hid auxiliary fuel tanks in the bow and rudder. The vehicle, appropriately named the “Half-Safe,” could now transport 220 gallons of fuel (instead of the usual 12 gallons) and weighed upward of three tons—all with only a puttering 60-horsepower engine.
The most harrowing leg of Carlin’s journey was crossing the Atlantic from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Azores off the coast of Portugal. After seven attempts, the Carlins finally made it and then continued eastward. Although Elinore bailed on the journey once they reached Australia, Carlin kept on, crept up to the Aleutian Island chain, and finally arrived in Montréal in May 1958. The entire trip had lasted eight years, crossed 11,000 miles of sea, nearly 40,000 miles of land, and cost about $35,000. To this day, it’s still the only circumnavigation completed by an amphibious vehicle.
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USS Triton (1960): First underwater circumnavigation
During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union played a decades-long game of technological chess, and in the spring of 1960, the U.S. Navy scored a major point with the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe. Much like Lucky Lady II’s nonstop flight, the USS Triton’s trip to sea, known as Operation Sandblast, was also a demonstration of the U.S.’s advanced military capabilities. However, the Triton had something the Lucky Lady didn’t: two nuclear reactors. This twin nuclear propulsion plant gave the Triton a top speed of around 35 miles per hour when submerged and also meant that the sub didn’t need refueling. At the time of its construction, the USS Triton was the longest and largest U.S. submarine ever built.
The Triton put out to sea on February 15, 1960, and sailors were only told that they’d likely be offshore for longer than usual. It wasn’t until they reached Brazil that the crew was finally let in on the historic nature of their mission. From there, the Triton’s path mostly followed the Magellan-Elcano expedition chartered four centuries earlier, but instead relied on nuclear fission rather than winds to get them home. On May 10, 1960, after 60 days and 21 hours at sea, the submarine reemerged near Groton, Connecticut, having completed the world’s first submerged circumnavigation.
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Vostok 1 (1961): First human orbit of Earth
For centuries, circumnavigation was a completely terrestrial effort, but that all ended on April 12, 1961, when a derivative of the R-7 rocket launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 into Earth’s orbit. Vostok I had a near spherical cabin with three portholes and external radio antennas. The life-support system, instrumentation, and ejection seat were also located in the cabin, according to NASA. Attached to this cabin were chemical batteries as well as orientation rockets for when the spacecraft was safely in orbit. Unlike previous globe-spanning adventures, this journey required no actual navigation as ground crews controlled the spacecraft the entire flight.
After completing one orbit, Vostok 1 plummeted toward Kazakhstan, and when the spacecraft reached an altitude of 4.3 miles, Gagarin ejected and safely returned to Earth via parachute. What had once taken European explorers years to achieve, Vostok 1 and its R-7 rocket pulled off in just 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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Saturn V (1968): First circumnavigation of Earth-Moon system
When it comes to human exploration, Apollo 11 receives a lot of attention. But eight months before Neil Armstrong took his “one giant leap for mankind,” Apollo 8 was the first mission to ferry humans beyond Earth orbit and complete the first circumnavigation of the Earth-Moon system. As a dress rehearsal for NASA’s ultimate objective of placing a human on the moon, Apollo 8 crucially tested NASA’s trans-lunar injection plan (the method for successfully entering orbit around the moon).
On December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 crew, perched atop the powerful Saturn V rocket with its 7.6 million pounds of thrust, launched toward the moon and entered lunar orbit three days later. The astronauts orbited the moon ten times before setting course for home and splashing down in the Pacific on the morning of December 27 with all mission objectives achieved. Within just six days, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders traveled 234,474 miles, or roughly ten times the number of miles needed to circumnavigate the Earth.
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Spirit of Texas (1982): First helicopter circumnavigation
Helicopters are amazing machines, but they’re not exactly known for long-distance endurance. This fact didn’t dissuade 23-year-old Ross Perot Jr., son of the famous third-party presidential candidate, from trying to pull off the feat. Perot opted for a Bell 206L LongRanger II helicopter, painted it in bright colors for extra visibility, removed all nonessential gear, and added safety and navigation equipment along with a 151-gallon auxiliary fuel tank. This extra fuel storage allowed the helicopter, named the “Spirit of Texas,” to fly roughly eight hours without refueling (though a C-130 cargo plane still trailed the helicopter with extra fuel and supplies).
On September 1, 1982, Perot and his co-pilot Jay Coburn lifted off from Fort Worth, Texas, and headed east. The flight went mostly according to plan, though Perot was forced to make a dice-y landing during a powerful storm on top of a container ship in the North Pacific. After 29 days, the chopper returned to Texas, having traveled 26,000 miles through 26 countries and refueling a total of 54 times. Today, the “Spirit of Texas” is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
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Solar Impulse 2 (2016): First solar-powered plane circumnavigation
As technology progresses, circumnavigating the world seems less and less impressive. But try to do it without using fuel, and suddenly the spirit of exploration is born anew. The first foray into this new, green future belongs to the Solar Impulse 2, which in the summer of 2016 became the first solar-powered aircraft to travel across the globe. With a wingspan of 235 feet (that’s wider than a Boeing 747), the Solar Impulse 2 packs 17,000 solar cells on its wings that charge its onboard batteries, which take up a quarter of the plane’s 5,511-pound weight. The aircraft can fly for six days without needing to land, cruising at 29,000 feet during the day before dropping to 5,000 feet at night to conserve energy. As for drawbacks? It only travels at around 45 miles per hour.
That middling speed is why it took pilot Betrand Piccard 505 days (23 days of actual flight time) to circumnavigate the Earth. But Piccard’s goal wasn’t to make a feasible aircraft to replace gas-guzzling jumbo jets by tomorrow, but to display the possible power of solar and other renewable energies and to help propel humanity into a greener future. After all, in less than 500 years, humans went from storm-tossed wooden ships to spacecraft capable of traveling beyond the embrace of Earth’s gravitational pull.Who knows where the next 500 years might take us.
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