Balloonists to Attempt to Reach Edge of Space

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 31, 2003

A 42-year-old record may fall this summer when two British balloonists attempt to shatter the world altitude mark for manned balloon flight. Andy Elson and Colin Prescot are waiting for a weather window during which they hope to pilot the QuinetiQ1 to 132,000 feet (40,000 meters)—the very edge of space.

Andy Elson, 49, is an aeronautical engineer who piloted the world's first hot air balloon flight over Mount Everest in 1991. The Wells, Somerset native has been working to design, build, and prepare to fly the QuinetiQ1.

Colin Prescot, 53, from Stockbridge, Hampshire is a commercial balloonist and managing director of Flying Pictures Ltd. He will co-pilot QuinetiQ 1 and relay images of the flight back to Earth.

An expert team backs the two pilots on an effort that has been several years in the making. The QuinetiQ 1 attempt was planned for the summer of 2002, but unstable weather and solar activity postponed the launch.

Massive Balloon Rivals Height of Empire State Building

The balloon itself, known as the envelope, will tower nearly as tall as the Empire State Building. With a volume of 44 million cubic feet (1.2 million cubic meters), it will take around two hours to inflate.

"QuinetiQ 1 is going to be a truly massive balloon, the biggest manned balloon in history by some fourfold," said Prescot earlier this year. "It's going to stand some 1,200 feet (366 meters) tall when we launch and on the edge of space it will be truly awesome."

The balloon is so enormous that it may be visible for a 600-mile (965-kilometer) radius when it launches from a ship off the coast of St. Ives, Cornwall.

The massive size is necessary to keep QuinetiQ1 aloft in the low-density atmosphere above 100,000 feet (30,480 meters).

The envelope is composed of polyethylene and is only as thick as a household freezer bag. Despite it's thin construction, the balloon's material is designed to withstand rugged conditions—including temperatures that could plunge as low as minus 94 F (minus 70 C).

Designers say a puncture is unlikely, and that even if a small hole did occur the non-pressurized balloon would likely only leak a bit of helium. A 3-inch (7.6-centimeter) tear is expected to have little effect.

The flight platform, or gondola, is open to the elements because the weight of a pressurized cabin would be too great even for the enormous balloon. Because of this design the pilots must wear pressurized spacesuits which provide oxygen. In this respect the flight resembles a long space walk.

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