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?

"It's not going to be possible to keep it at a steady seventy degrees," says Robert Hull, project manager for New Mexico State's PAL operation. "It could get pretty cold right before dawn--down to zero degrees and even colder."

Liniger says the group plans to take along plenty of spare parts, some of which could be used as ballast if the original equipment holds up as planned. The basic design of the gondola is sound, he insists--with the possible exception of the portholes. One window cracked recently after a Popular Science photographer had been shooting pictures through it using a very hot lamp. Hull says that his people are investigating the problem and that the gondola will undergo extensive testing in vacuum chambers in New Mexico and at Lockheed Martin in Colorado.

Even if Team Re/Max survives nearly three weeks in near-space without suffocating, freezing, roasting--or strangling each other over breaches of camp-toilet etiquette--there's still the landing to consider. Liniger has done just that. "The riskiest part is coming down," he says.

Every night, cooling temperatures will cause the helium to contract and drop the balloon as much as 50,000 feet below its daytime altitude. The crew hopes to make its descent right before dawn, when the balloon is already a third of the way back to Earth. But taking a cold helium bag into the warmer air below will accelerate the descent rate, and the trio's timing in releasing ballast--1,300 pounds of glass beads that look like sand, leftover water and supplies, whatever--will be critical in preventing a crash. Computer models have been done to calculate a smooth descent, but the fact remains that no one has ever landed a balloon this big before. And once they reach lower altitudes, Team Re/Max will be as vulnerable to capricious weather as the next aeronaut.

The gondola has its own parachute if it's necessary to cut the balloon loose. It's supposed to be seaworthy, too, in the event Team Re/Max misses Australia and is forced to ditch in the ocean. But it's also possible that one or more of the pilots will have to parachute down, like Joe Kittinger did. Martin has extensive skydiving experience--more than 300 jumps under his belt--but Liniger hasn't jumped out of a plane since his Air Force days. Skydiving lessons are just one more component in the training regimen he plans to undergo in the next few months to get his slightly portly 52-year-old body in shape for the flight.

Liniger says that every possible hazard of the flight will be coolly examined before the launch but that there's no sense in wringing his hands over it, any more than there is in worrying about whether someone else might grab the circumnavigation record first. "We're not doing this thing to fail," he says. "We're doing it to succeed."

Other people do fret about what Liniger is proposing--including Chauncey Dunn, the man who first came to Liniger with the idea of sailing the stratosphere. Now 66 years old, his circumnavigation plans behind him, Dunn says he has several concerns about the mission, from the shape of the gondola ("A sphere is fifty times stronger than a cylinder," he says) to the average age of the pilots ("Your respiratory system just goes to hell after 22 years of age") to the possible chemistry among the three men ("When you're in a closet with two other guys for three weeks, personalities really come out--it can be disastrous"). Also, in his view, the ideal altitude for the flight would be even higher than Team Re/Max plans to go, around 150,000 feet, in order not to lose the strong winds in the upper stratosphere when the balloon drops at night.

But what really troubles him is a more delicate matter. "The lack of experience in that group really bothers me," Dunn says. Although he was willing to take Liniger along himself ten years ago, he questions whether Martin (who has more than 2,400 hours of flight time, but most of it in planes and helicopters rather than balloons) or Wallington (a ballooning champion who crossed Australia in a gas balloon in 1993) have sufficient mastery of helium balloons to handle their quasi-spaceship.

"You don't mess around at 130,000 feet unless you really know gas balloons," he says. "If these people aren't thousands of hours in balloons, I don't want to talk to them. It's a very different type of flying."

Dunn says he's not trying to spoil the party; he wants to see Team Re/Max set the global record, he says, "and put an end to other guys doing it wrong.

"I hope their enthusiasm doesn't overtake good sense," he says. "It will save a lot of lives if they get it done right."

Yet even if the circumnavigation record eludes Team Re/Max, the mere attempt should provide the company with a windfall of publicity. Using the Re/Max satellite network, ham radios and even e-mail, the crew plans to broadcast their progress to the world, conduct scientific experiments and snap pictures for National Geographic. An online curriculum for K-12 students dealing with the science of the flight is being prepared in four languages, in the hopes of getting schoolchildren around the globe to follow the journey in the classroom.

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