Sky's the limit for undaunted balloonists Earthwinds' crew ready a 4th time

November 05, 1993|By McClatchy News Service

RENO, Nev. -- Starting sometime this weekend, possibly tomorrow, Larry Newman hopes to fly his $5 million balloon on a voyage that will cover more than 22,000 miles.

Or 21,995 miles farther than the last time he tried it.

Mr. Newman and two other men -- including a Russian space hero -- are hoping to boldly go where no human has gone before: Around the world nonstop, suspended between bags of helium and compressed air.

"There's certainly no guarantee it will happen, but I'd like to see a liftoff Saturday at dawn," Mr. Newman said this week. "The balloon will be ready, and so will we."

This is no ordinary hot-air-and-a-basket-off-to-see-the-wizard balloon. Dubbed the "Earthwinds Hilton," this balloon is shaped like an enormous hourglass as tall as a 30-story building. The upper chamber is 140 feet high at cruising altitudes and will be filled with more than 1 million cubic feet of helium -- or an amount that would fill five Goodyear blimps.

The lower chamber is a 110-foot ball filled with compressed air. The lower chamber serves as the balloon's ballast, with the crew letting air in or out of it to make the balloon rise or fall.

In between the chambers is a pressurized crew capsule designed by Burt Rutan, the man who built the only plane to fly around the world without refueling. And the cabin is equipped with all the comforts of a hotel room, if not home: first-run movies; a direct-dial phone; travel kits; a single extra-long bed, which the aeronauts will occupy in shifts; and a lavatory with a holding tank.

"They will be very comfortable," said Max Martens, a spokesman for the 3-year-old project. "Well, fairly comfortable."

Despite its space-age design, however, the Earthwinds' history would seem to link it more to the Titanic than the starship Enterprise. It was first to be launched from Akron, Ohio, in February 1992. But that effort was scrubbed when the weather in Europe refused to cooperate.

The launch site was moved to Reno's Stead Airfield, an abandoned Air Force base about 10 miles north of downtown that's home to the National Air Show. A second launch attempt in November 1992 was canceled when one of the chambers broke free of its chains.

Then came last Jan. 12. To the cheers of a large crowd, Earthwinds lifted off without a hitch. But partly because of frigid temperatures, it failed to lift off high enough to clear a mountain peak about five miles away from the launch and crashed into a ridge. Although no one was hurt, the upper and lower balloon chambers were wrecked.

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