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Published: Thursday, 8/9/2001

Balloonist Fossett conserves precious oxygen


WASHINGTON - Steve Fossett soared through a lonely world of water and sky yesterday, making good headway over the Pacific Ocean in his quest to complete the first solo balloon flight around the globe.

The millionaire adventurer faces several more days traversing one of the largest expanses of open water in the world. It is a desolate but beautiful stretch of the South Pacific that extends from Australia to Chile.

His Solo Spirit balloon lifted off Sunday from Northam, a dusty mining town in western Australia. If by some miracle Mr. Fossett, 57, makes it back to the same line of longitude, he will grab a place in aviation history. Circumnavigation will take 17,000-18,000 miles and perhaps 18 days.

A hundred hazards fill the days and miles ahead, with Mr. Fossett's oxygen supply No. 1 on the list until late yesterday.

"Steve just did a heck of a job," said Joe Ritchie, director of the Solo Spirit mission control center at Washington University in St. Louis. Mr. Fossett is a university trustee. "He just beat everybody's projections on getting acclimatized."

Early in the flight, Mr. Fossett used twice as much oxygen as planned, apparently breathing faster as he struggled with a common cold that slowed his adjustment to the high altitude.

But yesterday Mr. Fossett managed to cut his oxygen consumption from five liters per minute to the expected two liters.

After a 6-hour nap, Mr. Fossett was optimistic about the voyage, Mr. Ritchie added.

Mr. Fossett rides in a small habitation capsule slung beneath Solo Spirit's huge outer envelope. The capsule is heated. It is unpressurized, so Mr. Fossett must breathe oxygen when the balloon is at cruising altitudes, which range up to 29,000 feet.

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If oxygen consumption becomes a concern again, mission control could have Solo Spirit fly at lower altitudes. “If he is able to fly lower than 16,000 feet, he could cut his use of oxygen,” Mr. Ritchie said.

However, flying that low depends on weather conditions, he added. Solo Spirit is unpowered, and uses wind currents to carry it eastward. Mission controllers would order a descent only if the lower-level winds were in the right direction, and fast enough to keep the flight on schedule.

The schedule is tight because Solo Spirit was designed to remain aloft for 22 days. On his 5 previous around-the-world attempts, Mr. Fossett experienced the frustration familiar to all ballooners. He wasted time while caught in the doldrums or blown off course.

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