AKRON, Ohio — As the nation's presidential candidates squabble in New Hampshire, two American daredevils and a Russian cosmonaut are set to put hot air and gas to a more productive use as they ready the first-ever attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon.
Any day now, weather permitting, the three will climb into a fragile contraption that resembles an overgrown Tylenol lashed between a massive jellyfish and a monstrous, monogrammed onion and soar aloft from a cavernous hangar here once used to build dirigibles and blimps.
If they succeed--and that's a big if--they would shatter existing balloon records by hitchhiking on the jet stream 22,000 miles nonstop more than six miles above the Northern Hemisphere.
But riding the gawky, innovative and untested double-balloon craft, dubbed Earthwinds, is a risky venture that even its captain, Sherman Oaks native Larry Newman, predicted had little more than a 10% chance of going all the way.
Already, the liftoff has been postponed several times because of complex meteorological problems. Last weekend, for example, conditions at the launch site were perfect but down-range winds threatened to hurtle the craft over the volatile Persian Gulf and possibly Iraq.
"It's such a long shot," acknowledged Newman, who also holds the current nonstop balloon record for a 1981 transpacific flight. "When I look at the (control) capsule and all the equipment inside and realize how complex and delicate it all is and how everything has to work just right, I have to preface everything with 'maybe,' 'I hope' and 'it might' because it's exactly that. It's an experiment."
The privately funded project is part science, part stunt and part geopolitics mixed with a good dollop of hucksterism. Corporate sponsors, including an airline, a hotel chain, a watch maker, an electronics giant and a cable television network, have chipped in $3.5 million in cash, labor and equipment. Some are aggressively promoting their participation with publicists, press releases and logos that have turned the craft into an enormous, inflated billboard.
NASA has also gotten in on the project, installing equipment to monitor the effects of wind shear. And Russian scientists have added a particularly timely experiment that will measure ozone levels and could help refine the growing debate over pollution induced depletion of the protective ozone layer.
Besides the 44-year-old Newman, a commercial airline pilot who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., the crew includes Don Moses, a Hawaii boat maker and balloon enthusiast, and Maj. Gen Vladimir Dzhanibekov, 49, who commanded five space missions and is now chief of cosmonaut training for the Russian space program.
The inclusion of Dzhanibekov took place before the breakup of the Soviet Union and helped win approval for the balloon to fly over that country. The technological barriers were even more daunting. Until recently, balloonists thought physical limits of even the most sophisticated equipment precluded any attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
Balloons, by nature, are propelled by the winds. But to rise and stay aloft they must become lighter than air. To accomplish that, they are typically filled either with helium or with air that is heated so that its molecules become less dense than the cooler air outside the balloon.
The weight of fuel tanks needed to fire up a round-the-world hot air venture was believed prohibitive. Helium needs no such in-flight replenishment, but it has to be vented slightly during daylight hours, otherwise heat from the sun will cause its molecules to expand so much that the balloon could burst. Conversely, at night the molecules condense and the balloon sinks unless ballast, often sandbags, are tossed over the sides to lessen the total weight. Gradually, the balloon runs out of enough helium and ballast to stay aloft.
Earthwinds was designed to effectively marry the best features of both balloon types while adding some sophisticated refinements. In essence, it employs an upper and a lower balloon, with a sealed and pressurized gondola--or living capsule--in the middle.
The upper balloon, made of a clear filmy substance similar to that found in sandwich bags, will be filled with about 300,000 cubic feet of helium on takeoff. As it rises, the gas will swell to a capacity of more than 1 million cubic feet.
If it works as hoped, the key to Earthwinds will be the 500,000-cubic-foot capacity bottom balloon containing heated air. Stitched of an impermeable bulletproof fabric that vividly highlights the names of those corporate benefactors, the sole purpose of the bottom balloon is to provide a kind of counterweight to the upper structure. That way ballast can be added or released to keep the balloon at a steady altitude without requiring an excessive amount of fuel storage.