Balloonists to Attempt to Reach Edge of Space

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The demands of functioning in the suits at such great altitude required extensive hyperbaric training, normally used for undersea exploration, and survival skills work in order to build physical and mental stamina to not only survive but also operate the balloon safely.

"After even just an hour in these spacesuits being pressurized you feel pretty beat up," Prescot explained, "and we're going to be nine to eleven hours in flight."

Dangers Include High Winds, Thin Air

While the team is taking every precaution, the enterprise is a dangerous one. When current record holders Commander Malcolm D. Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor A. Prather of the U.S. Navy reached the height of 113,740 feet (34,668 meters) in May 1961, Prather was drowned during the recovery.

High winds are perhaps the current team's primary concern, as they could shred the massive envelope during inflation or during the flight itself. The attempt is scheduled for the period between July and September because it offers more predictable east-west winds above 80,000 feet (24,000 meters).

"In terms of risk, probably the most dangerous part of the flight is when we're at altitude," Andy Elson said. "The take off is easily an area that could go wrong, but when we're at maximum altitude any problems with the life-support system or a suit would be extremely dangerous for us." Those problems could cause hypoxia (oxygen deprivation), a dangerous condition that can confuse, disorient, and even kill. When the weather is a go, the team will begin inflating the balloon at dawn. After lift off, the ascension to 132,000 feet (39,6000 meters) should take four to five hours.

On the way up, the team will experience the most extreme cold, temperatures reaching perhaps minus 76 F (minus 60 C), between 60,000 and 80,000 feet (18,288 to 24,384 meters). Conditions will warm as the balloon climbs further, reaching around minus13 F (minus 25 C) at the record height—where the pilots hope to spend about one hour.

While floating some 25 miles (40 kilometers) above the Earth, Elson and Prescot will conduct a series of scientific experiments, including the use of QinetiQ's CREAM (Cosmic Radiation Effects and Activation Monitor). CREAM has traveled some 75 million miles on MIR and the Space Shuttle, and over a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) on Concorde in order to measure the effects of cosmic radiation. QuinetiQ 1 will allow CREAM to gather data in the missing gap between Concorde's flying altitude of 59,000 feet (17,983 meters) and the lower shuttle altitudes of 150 miles (241 kilometers).

With the experiments complete, the pilots will open a valve to release the balloon's helium and begin a slow, two-hour descent to splashdown some 100 to 250 miles (160 to 400 kilometers) west of the launch spot. Although both the envelope and flight platform will be retrieved, the envelope will likely be shredded in the landing process.

It's an exciting prospect that blends cutting-edge technology with the emotional wonder of flight.

"From Andy's point of view as an engineer the fascination is actually putting the whole thing together and making it happen for real so it's practical," said Prescot. "For me it's the schoolboy image of two men on an open deck in spacesuits, under the biggest balloon in history in an ink-black sky with the curvature of the Earth underneath and being able, with modern technology, to be able to communicate that back to Earth, I think is going to be an awesome experience. "

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