Originally created 12/31/98

Balloon capsule lifts off -- a few inches



ALICE SPRINGS, Australia -- Lifting their spaceship-like capsule a few inches off the ground, a U.S-Australian team made final tests Wednesday for a round-the-world balloon attempt that will take them to the edge of space.

The pressurized gondola was raised just above the red sands of the Australian desert by a crane in its first-ever liftoff to test ballast and landing equipment.

Organizers said they found a few problems, but nothing so far that would delay the planned Jan. 1 launch from the Australian outback. Weather conditions could delay the launch, however, if dangerously strong winds continue to blow over the site.

The Re/Max International team hopes to make the first nonstop balloon flight around the world. They plan to fly on the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, some 25 miles above sea level.

Their 7-foot-by-8-foot capsule will dangle under a balloon 460 feet in diameter and 700 feet high at its fullest inflation.

Their bid comes just days after a failed attempt by Chicago millionaire Steve Fossett, British millionaire Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand of Sweden in a more conventional balloon.

The tin workshop outside the central Australian town of Alice Springs, which serves as balloon central, was a hive of activity Wednesday as team members and volunteers made final preparations.

"There's no question that it's more dangerous than the other missions," said team leader Dave Liniger, a Denver real estate magnate. "If we get into trouble, we're 25 miles up, so it creates some special hazards."

Spokesman Kevin Roark said the team was on schedule for the launch, although many components were not yet installed in the capsule.

Tests on Wednesday showed uneven weight distribution between the six steel cables connecting the gondola to the balloon.

Technicians began redistributing the 6,600-pound capacity payload while engineers continued checking equipment -- including oxygen and nitrogen tanks to create the atmosphere inside the gondola, and the space suits and parachutes the pilots will wear during takeoff and landing.

The capsule will carry pilots Liniger, journalist Bob Martin from Albuquerque, N.M., and Australian John Wallington.

During takeoff, the balloon will rise 1,000 feet a minute on the way up to a cruising altitude of 130,000 feet above sea level.

At that height -- which would break the record altitude of 113,740 feet for a manned balloon -- the team hopes to catch winds to carry it up to 80 mph along a route almost directly following the Tropic of Capricorn, and complete the 22,800-mile journey in about 18 days.