Last month, we became accustomed to seeing daily more riveting images of a huge, upside-down-pear-shaped bag: now rising from the Moroccan desert, now sailing over the Himalayas, now poised photogenically above Mount Fuji.
This week and next, if the weather in Central Australia finally cooperates, people in the Southern Hemisphere should be able to look up on clear nights and see a phantom form, rather like an inverted pendulous jellyfish, crossing the face of the moon.
The former apparition was, of course, the ill-fated Virgin ICO Global Challenger on its quest to complete the first nonstop round-the-world balloon flight. (Delayed at the Chinese border, the balloon missed a date with the jet stream and was forced to ditch in the Pacific on Dec. 25, well short of its goal.) The latter will be the giant Team RE/MAX balloon now scheduled to be launched Tuesday, after weeks of delay, in pursuit of the same aim. This mission, even if it fails, is mind-boggling: The pilots will ride in a capsule beneath a gas-filled globe bigger than the Houston Astrodome and made of clear plastic as thin as a dry-cleaning bag. What is more, the balloon will fly at an altitude of some 39,000 meters, more than four times higher than commercial jets, in the black silence near the top of the stratosphere where Earth’s layers end and space begins.
Meanwhile, at least six other crews are also planning to take advantage of the weather window that opens briefly at this time of year and launch their own missions. The sky, like the news, may soon be positively blossoming with men in balloons (no women are included on any of the current teams), soaring into the atmosphere on the strength of light hearts and a great deal of hot air.
Why the sudden interest in this so-called last great challenge of modern aviation? For the participants, reasons abound. First, in November 1997 a U.S. corporation offered $1 million for the first successful balloon circumnavigation of the earth before the end of 1999. The money is a negligible incentive, since it represents far less than the cost of even a modest attempt, and in any case, half must be given to charity. But there is something about a prize — and by extension a race — that stirs men’s blood: Even Charles Lindbergh was propelled to Paris by the fever of competition. In the second place, recent technological advances have transformed this antiquated hobby of eccentric, top-coated gentlemen into today’s single most high-tech sport, finally making yesterday’s daydream of global circumnavigation feasible. The RE/MAX liftoff this week will look more like a space shot than a traditional balloon launch.
Neither reason, however, would suffice if it were not also combined with the oldest and least explicable of impulses: the quest for sheer adventure. The three men who splashed down into the Pacific on Christmas Day were doubtless haunted by the same demon that drove Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mount Everest, Roald Amundsen to the South Pole and, just last week, a team of Western explorers to a hitherto unrecorded waterfall deep in the rocky fastnesses of Tibet’s Tsangpo River. As the Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard said after he first failed to fly around the world nonstop (his flight was so short that one newspaper dubbed it “un saut de puce,” a flea’s jump): “People need dreams, they need adventure.” The extremely adventurous Mr. Piccard is making his third attempt this winter.
It is this last factor — even though it is hard to invoke without toppling into Piccard-like cliche — that carries the most weight with us earthbound observers. There is no compelling reason for these undertakings, though they are invariably tarted up with scientific and other educational “payloads”; but we all recognize the glory that attends success. Sometimes, an even more memorable kind of glory attends failure, when the failure is accompanied by the appearance of nobility. Thus we remember the doomed and stoic Capt. Robert Scott quite as vividly as Amundsen, who beat him to the pole, and the crew of the crippled Apollo 13 as well as the men who first walked on the moon. Last month, the wealthy, dilettantish British tycoon Richard Branson underwent a version of this transformation when the Global Challenger went down. Mr. Branson came close enough to death and conducted himself bravely enough in the face of it to earn, at last, a measure of public respect.
In the end, for those of us who stay home and watch, it is not the feat itself but the fortitude of those who attempt it that compels our interest and admiration. It will certainly be foremost in our minds as we track the progress of the two men floating under their frail bubble 39 km above our heads this week.
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