It can sometimes be easy to lose perspective when talking about historical events. Once timelines stretch beyond the horizon of our own recollection, they tend to get fuzzy. Most people would be surprised to know, for instance, that Cleopatra’s lifetime was actually closer to ours than it was to the construction of the pyramids, or that the Tyrannosaurus Rex is further separated from the Stegosaurus than it is from mankind on our planet’s lengthy timeline.

It’s because of that weakness that we tend to lose sight of how recent a development mankind’s dominance of the globe truly is. Back in 1897, a mere 72 years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, we weren’t even sure if it was possible to reach the North Pole. At the time, our species was still relegated to exploring the furthest reaches of our planet by ship and foot, but one man had a crazy idea: what if we tried exploring by air?

Salomon August Andrée, a Swedish explorer that was well aware of how many previous efforts to reach the North Pole had failed, envisioned coasting across the Arctic skies in a balloon, reaching the North Pole in whatever state it may be (at the time, no one was sure if it was on land, sea, or ice) and returning with tale of his incredible sights along the way. At the time, balloons had already been used in aviation for years, but none had ever remained aloft for more than 15 days. Andrée sought to double that feat, inventing new contraptions he claimed would allow his balloon ship to travel “at cross-purposes to the wind” if it had to along its journey from Sweden to Alaska directly over the pole itself. The plan had plenty of critics, but it also garnered some noteworthy support, including Alfred Nobel (inventor of dynamite and creator of the Nobel Prize) and the Swedish King Oscar II, who helped to fund the endeavor.

Andrée’s hydrogen balloon was made in Paris out of layers of varnished silk. All told, it measured nearly 100 feet high and weight a ton and a half. The explosive nature of the hydrogen that carried it aloft was mitigated, Andrée believed, through doing things like mounting the air ship’s cooking stove outside the basket he and his crew would ride in. Impossible as Andrée’s goal seemed at first glance, when he and two crewmates (Knut Fraenkel, a 26-year-old civil engineer and Nils Strindberg, a physics professor) took off on July 11, 1897 from an island in the Svalbard archipelago, it was beginning to seem like they might actually have a chance at succeeding.