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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 September, 2003, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
Balloonists vow to come back
Britons Andy Elson and Colin Prescot say they intend to be back next year to make another attempt on the world altitude record for a manned balloon.

Prescot and Elson
Prescot and Elson: Already thinking about 2004
On Wednesday, their bid to better the current mark set 42 years ago foundered when their giant envelope sprang a leak as it was being filled with helium.

The pair said they would go away and analyse what went wrong and then come back in 2004 stronger for the experience.

"As an engineer, I'm pragmatic," said Elson. "When we get it right, it will work; and when it works, we'll get the record; and when we get the record, we'll have a cracking party."

After the initial disappointment, Prescot too was remarkably upbeat when he faced the media.

"We first got into this six years ago and it's been relentless since then," he said. "Unfortunately, we just found another way that didn't work rather than failing. We'll get that put right and we'll succeed."

Up or down

The QinetiQ-sponsored team began inflating its balloon at 0400 BST on the deck of the prototype warship RV Triton, stationed off the coast of Cornwall.

The weather conditions were perfect, with only a slight north-easterly wind.

Ship, PA
(1) Twist occurs as balloon comes off storage drum
(2) Extreme pressure builds at top of main balloon
(3) Seam fails when envelope is just 50ft above deck
(4) Buoyancy envelopes suddenly fall back down

All seemed to be going well when suddenly, at 0655, shortly before the spacesuited Elson and Prescot would have climbed on to their gondola, the expanding balloon collapsed.

Almost a million cubic metres of gas were venting through a breach at the top of the envelope. Technicians suspected a twist in the balloon as it was unfurled from its storage drum might have led to a section of the skin becoming over-pressurised.

The now damaged QinetiQ 1 balloon - the largest envelope ever constructed for crewed flight - will be scrapped.

"It will go into the melting pot and come out as bin bags," Elson confirmed. "These balloons are a one-shot thing. Trying to unpack and repack nine acres of polythene is not an option.

"These balloons either stand up beautifully and fly, or they go in a skip."

Once the team is sure it knows the precise cause of the failure and how to prevent it happening again, an entirely new balloon will be made.

This will, however, require further investment from QinetiQ, the science research company spun out from the UK's Ministry of Defence. It has already put 2m into the venture.

One of the firm's managing directors, Dr David Anderson, said it still wanted to be part of the project.

"Clearly the events of today force us to look at the situation and we will be in discussion with the team over the coming weeks about where we go from here," he said.

Greatness awaits

If the problem was diagnosed quickly it would be possible to manufacture another balloon in a matter of weeks, Elson said, but by then favourable weather conditions in the UK would have passed.

Pilots have constantly pushed the latest technology to fly their balloons ever higher and further

And the team rejected the idea of taking the record bid to a country in the Southern Hemisphere.

"This is very much a British project," Prescot said. "QinetiQ is a British company, the pilots are British - there's an enormous amount of British technology in there. It would be a shame not to do it here."

And mission control chief, Brian Jones, argued that even the much-maligned UK climate provided what they wanted in terms of wind and clear skies.

Prescot and Elson
Prescot and Elson: Already thinking about 2004
"The conditions this morning were absolutely perfect," he said. "There was nowhere in the world that we could have had better conditions than we had today.

"It's extremely galling but it just increases our determination. It's the nature of great achievements that they are preceded by failure. We will be back."

The current world altitude mark for a manned balloon of 113,740 feet (34,668 metres) was set by Vic Prather and Malcolm Ross above the Gulf of Mexico.

The US Navy pilots undertook the journey to gather information about the high-altitude environment for the Mercury space programme.

The BBC's Robert Hall
"For a few brief minutes there was hope that the mission could be salvaged"

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