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The Final Frontier

In the deadly race to circle the globe in a balloon, team Re/Max plans to rise above the crowd. But can a bold ego go where no man has gone before?

"We really weren't interested in sponsoring someone else," Liniger says now. "I wanted to make the flight solo. Every scientist that my people talked to said, 'This will work.' Every balloonist they talked to said, 'This is crazy; this will never work.'"

Liniger wasn't the only person looking at the stratosphere, however. Albuquerque science reporter Bob Martin had been trying to get a similar venture off the ground since the late 1980s, ever since he became familiar with the government's balloon program while covering stories at New Mexico State University's Particle Astrophysics Laboratory (PAL), which contracts with NASA to operate its ballooning facility in Texas. Martin's project, known as Odyssey Expedition and then as the Dymocks Flyer in honor of an Australian bookstore chain that provided some sponsorship, planned to sail around the Southern Hemisphere, skirting the hostile-nations problem by flying mostly over water. But five years after the trip was first announced, the project was still short of funds.

"It was very difficult to find enough money to do it right," says Kevin Roark, the public-relations director for the project for the past five years, who estimates that the flight will cost from $1.5 million to more than $2 million. "A lot of the money came from Bob Martin knocking on doors and collecting it one dollar at a time. I can't tell you how many Lions Club and Rotary Club meetings he went to, just to keep the thing alive, while we looked for a main sponsor."

Martin's group already had a partially completed gondola, a welded aluminum cylinder eight feet in diameter, with two hatches and several windows. Re/Max had the cash to become the chief sponsor. A deal was quickly struck. "This was a shortcut," Liniger says. "It meant three pilots instead of one, but you need at least two for safety, and three is much better."

Liniger hadn't even met Martin's other co-pilot, John Wallington, at the time he signed on for the flight. But Roark says that the gondola was designed for three pilots--Martin's original partners dropped out as the fundraising dragged on--and that the three men will be spending considerably more time together in the coming months. Extensive training, testing and planning remains to be done before the scheduled December takeoff, during a three-week "launch window" when weather conditions and the stratospheric winds in the Southern Hemisphere are optimal for the flight.

"We're all very safety-conscious," says Liniger, who expects to get along fabulously with his co-pilots while squeezed into a single-cot, showerless capsule for close to three weeks. "I'm not easily rattled. I drive NASCAR every weekend, and when you're inches off forty of your closest friends at 160 to 200 miles per hour, you've got to be fairly calm about what you're doing."

Re/Max president Jesperson is taken by the "symbolism" of the proposed flight, which he regards as a perfect expression of Liniger's own corporate style. "Re/Max is a very unconventional company," he notes. "We do a lot of things differently. Everyone else who's trying to go around the world in a balloon is doing it in the Northern Hemisphere, heading from west to east. We're doing it in the Southern Hemisphere, heading from east to west--at 130,000 feet. It's out-of-the-box thinking."

Whether such thinking could end up putting someone in a box is another matter. "We do have variables tied to life support and being in a near-space environment," Roark acknowledges. "We have to be ready for all kinds of emergency situations, and we're flying mostly over water. But to me, it seems so technically difficult to go around the world in the jetstream. You leave an awful lot up to luck. All we have to do is get [to 130,000 feet] and stay there, and the winds will take us around."

He adds, "I'm really at a loss why we're the only ones going this way."

On August 16, 1960, an Air Force test pilot named Joe Kittinger jumped out of a balloon at an altitude of 103,000 feet. Wearing a leaky pressurized suit, he was in freefall for more than four and a half minutes before he reached a sufficiently benign region of the atmosphere to safely deploy his main parachute. At one point his rate of descent exceeded six hundred miles per hour, close to the speed of sound in the troposphere, earning him the reputation of being "the only person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle."

Kittinger survived his record-setting experience. Other pioneering balloonists, trying to go higher or farther than anyone else--or both--haven't always been so fortunate.

The dream of traveling the world in a balloon dates back at least two hundred years, but in the past two decades it's become more tangible--ever since 1978, when Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo and Larry Newman demonstrated that it was possible to cross the Atlantic in their craft, the Double Eagle II. Anderson went on to make several unsuccessful tries to circle the world and died in his fourth attempt, in 1983, when a faulty clamp resulted in a crash landing in Europe.

Larry Newman made five attempts between 1991 and 1995 in an unusual hourglass-shaped craft with helium in the top envelope and a pressurized airbag for ballast beneath the gondola. A variety of equipment and weather problems kept thwarting him--during one flight, a mountain peak tore a hole in the ballast balloon--until his sponsor, Hilton Hotels, which had sunk more than $8 million in the project, pulled out.

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