Balloon Soars After Record

American adventurer is ahead of schedule through first five days in quest to circle the globe.

Steve Fossett's feet have not touched the ground in this new year. And he hopes that remains the case for at least another 10 days, as he tries to become the first person to ever circle the globe - nonstop - in a balloon.

If he succeeds he'll go down in aviation history, and receive a prize from Anheuser-Busch of $1 million. But the wealthy commodities trader from Chicago says he doesn't need the money or attention.

"This doesn't have anything to do with money," he says.

"Some of what I do have been adventures, and this around-the-world flight is a major exploration, perhaps one of the greatest explorations that hasn't been done."

Mr. Fossett lifted off from St. Louis on New Year's Eve. It is his fourth attempt at circling the globe. But he's not alone.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, Dick Rutan and Dave Melton will take off from Albuquerque, N.M., in their balloon. Richard Branson, Britain's flamboyant businessman who heads Virgin Atlantic, tried last month to begin a trip from Morocco, but his balloon broke free and sailed without him. He says he'll try again but hasn't set a date.

Finally, last week Kevin Uliassi took off from Rockford, Ill., in his craft. He was forced down three hours later because of a rip in his balloon.

All the competitors scheduled December or January trips because that's the only time prevailing winds allow a balloon to make the entire journey.

Last great aviation challenge

"Here's a method of aviation that has existed since 1783, and here we are at the end of the 20th century and no one has flown around the world yet," Fossett said just before takeoff. "It's surprising that this remains undone."

Fossett's Solo Spirit is a 140-foot-tall helium-and-hot-air balloon combination known as a Rozier, named after the first person ever to fly in a balloon, Jean-Franois Piatre de Rozier.

The craft has an upper chamber of helium and a lower chamber of air. During the day, the helium is heated by the sun. It expands and creates lift. At night, when the helium cools and contracts, burners heat the air compartment to give extra lift. The balloon cruises at between 20,000 and 33,000 feet. Fossett rides beneath the balloon in a small gondola complete with a computer.

The sport isn't new for Fossett. Already, he has compiled an impressive list of journeys. In 1994, he set a distance record as he crossed the Atlantic from Canada to Germany, and in 1995 he made the first solo balloon flight across the Pacific.

Early last year Fossett flew from St. Louis to India in an attempt to fly around the world. Although he was unsuccessful, he did set the world record for both distance and duration after chalking up 10,360 miles in six days aloft.

Despite his accomplishments, which also include several attempts at the famed Iditarod sled-dog race across Alaska, Fossett comes across as modest. "I've been unsuccessful in more of my attempts than successful," he says. "First, it's a reflection of the difficulty of the things I've tried. In hard things, you can't expect to be successful every time. And some things I've attempted four or maybe five times before succeeding."

NASA along for the ride

Scientists at NASA plan to use Solo Spirit's flight to test an instrument package that may one day fly the atmospheres of Mars and Venus.

The experiment will help NASA learn how to fly remote-controlled balloons, called aerobots, around other planets. The prototype aerobot payload, or hardware system, was developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The Aerobot Science Payload on Solo Spirit measures atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind velocity, along with Solo Spirit's position, altitude, and heading. US scientists hope to fly a balloon in the atmosphere of Mars early in the next century. According to Ray Arvidson, a 25-year veteran of NASA planetary missions and science coordinator for the Solo Spirit mission, an aerobot flying above Mars will do the same things as Solo Spirit, including varying its altitude to steer through the atmosphere.

"The idea is that you would have a spacecraft, and it would put a balloon into the atmosphere, and it would inflate and fly perhaps 500-meters above the surface and acquire information that you can't acquire from either orbit or from the landed perspective," says Dr. Arvidson.

Fossett, meanwhile, is focused on the job at hand. He headed over the Black Sea and Turkey at press time. He'll then cross Central Asia.

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