One Small Step for Man. One Giant Leap for Middle-Aged Science Geeks and Chubby Real Estate Agents Everywhere

Three regular guys prepare to venture into orbit in a helium balloon. And thus is Amended the Grand Roll of Space Heroes: Shepard. Glenn. Armstrong — and Dave, John, and Bob

Brad Wetzler

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Inside the Gondola Integration Facility a trio of wall-mounted clocks displays the local time in three key locations: Albuquerque, Alice Springs, and Greenwich, England — the latter being standard time in space exploration. The seconds tick by. In the center of the room, underneath bright surgical lamps, engineers tinker with a shiny cylindrical aluminum pod, murmuring to one another about the ratio of the volume of a gas to its pressure and temperature. As the workers fiddle and mumble, a stout, balding, 45-year-old man zipped into a black uniform of uncertain provenance stands next to one of the pod’s two hatches and affectionately traces a welded seam with his index finger.

“We’re going to space,” Team RE/MAX copilot Bob Martin announces, picking at a rough spot in the aluminum. “And this pod is going to keep us alive.”

That, of course, is all that any explorer in search of truth in a cold and hostile universe can ever wish for from his trusty vessel. Yet at least one part of Martin’s bold pronouncement is not strictly accurate. The fact is, Martin and two fellow explorers will not be going to space — not exactly. No roaring rocket booster is going to fire Team RE/MAX’s three-man crew into the inky-black weightlessness of Earth orbit. Sometime late this month or early next month, however, if all goes according to plan, the trio of civilian aeronauts will soar to the very edge of space, as high as the upper reaches of the stratosphere. The space shuttle may orbit about 10 times as high, but Team RE/MAX will be circling 24 miles above Earth’s surface, and it’ll be flying through a deadly, nearly airless realm of freezing temperatures and burning heat. At 130,000 feet, skimming above 99.6 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, it might as well be in space. What’s more, Team RE/MAX may encounter hazards that NASA and its cushy shuttle never worries about. Deflating, for one. Because Team RE/MAX plans to kiss outer space not with a rocket ship, but with a balloon.

As part of a scheme to achieve what may be the last of the big firsts — to circle the globe by balloon — Martin, an Albuquerque television news reporter, along with 53-year-old Denver real estate executive Dave Liniger and 42-year-old Australian balloonist John Wallington, is going to use a helium balloon to lift this pressurized pod beyond the reach of the capricious weather that has so far frustrated 17 previous attempts to win ballooning’s ultimate prize. Riding the smooth currents of the stratosphere, Team RE/MAX hopes to navigate a 22,800-mile route around the Southern Hemisphere while dangling beneath the biggest manned-balloon envelope in history.

Exactly how big becomes clear when Martin waves a visitor across the pod bay to a schematic drawing mounted on the wall of the GIF, located in a cavernous building on the outskirts of Albuquerque. The drawing looks to be that of a Lilliputian ant (the pod) hanging by threads from a Brobdingnagian football (the balloon). “It’s as tall as the Empire State Building and larger than the Astrodome,” Martin says proudly, ticking off superlatives. The envelope will be made of 13 acres of thin, clear polyethylene, only 0.8 millimeters thick in places, or about half the thickness of a human hair. The balloon will need more than 170,000 cubic feet of helium to launch, a volume that will expand to 40 million cubic feet in the upper stratosphere, 571 times larger than a standard expeditionary hot-air balloon. It’s being manufactured by the Texas contractor that makes NASA’s high-altitude research balloons.

The 650-pound pod, on the other hand, is a one-of-a-kind, do-it-yourself project that will pack a lot of hardware into a small package, as Martin makes clear when he pokes his head in through an open hatch and begins pointing out the amenities. The hull has been welded from plates of aluminum alloy and will be insulated against the night cold with a two-inch Ethafoam coating. The pod features three supposedly crashworthy seats, a climate-control system that pipes in oxygen and nitrogen from exterior tanks, and a high-tech scrubber to prevent a dangerous buildup of carbon dioxide. There will be only two ways to control the balloon from inside the gondola: by dropping some of the 1,300 pounds of ballast to go up or by venting helium to go down. In the event of a slow leak, the crew members will don pressure suits. If necessary, they will strap parachutes on over the suits and bail out.

The point of all this technology, of course, is competition — and it’s heating up. No fewer than six other balloon teams are planning an attempted circumnavigation of the globe this winter; all have plotted conventional low-altitude courses and plan to leave sometime between November 15 and February 15. Team RE/MAX has vowed to make its own attempt even if one of its rivals succeeds before it departs.

And so, possibly as early as Christmas, technicians in Alice Springs, Australia, will begin unfurling the gigantic envelope and piping helium into it. At 5:00 a.m. the crew members will climb into the gondola and seal the door behind them, technicians will release the balloon, and Team RE/MAX will begin its ascent. Two-and-a-half hours later, having passed through the troposphere and tropopause, they’ll break the previous manned-ballooning altitude record of 113,739 feet on their way to topping out at 130,000 feet. Traveling westward at a daytime speed of about 80 miles per hour and slowing to 35 miles per hour at night, Team RE/MAX will cross the Indian Ocean, southern Africa, the Atlantic, South America, and the Pacific before arriving back in Australia 16 to 18 days later. “A pretty tidy operation,” Martin says.

Indeed. At a time when so much discussion about adventure is centered on meaningless firsts, Team RE/MAX is truly operating out at the edge. At a time when adventure is packaged and precooked, Team RE/MAX has unwrapped the package entirely and is biting into the raw meat. If none of the three pilots is a rocket scientist, that is, in a way, the beauty of the thing: it will be adventure for adventure’s sake.

“A lot of people say this can’t be done,” Martin declares. “That’s OK with us.”

If Team RE/MAX were only about scientific-sounding know-how and a heedless can-do spirit, the enterprise would have never, figuratively speaking, gotten off the ground. As with so much else in life, the key to success was salesmanship, starting with the tireless efforts of pitchman Bob Martin.

These days Martin is on sabbatical from his job as a television news reporter for Albuquerque’s CBS affiliate, where he covers science, the occasional war, and with the aid of his helicopter pilot’s license, car accidents and the like. But the balloon idea came to Martin on the job nine years ago, when he reported a story on New Mexico State University’s high-altitude ballooning program, which studies cosmic rays and other elusive phenomena. “I started thinking, if they can send their machines to the edge of space, why couldn’t a person ride along?” Martin recalls. “The around-the-world part came to me a little later.”

In a way, Martin’s brainstorm offered an opportunity to assuage an earlier disappointment. In the mid-1980s, he had applied for one of NASA’s citizen-astronaut slots, and was waiting hopefully for his chance when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986, killing schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and six other crew members.

Having resolved to get to space on his own, Martin dubbed his project the Odyssey Expedition and, in 1993, began to solicit backers. Hat in hand, he outlined his idea to Rotary Club meetings and eventually to fellow science enthusiasts at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lockheed Martin. Modest amounts of seed money trickled in, but large backers were reluctant to sign over the necessary millions. It wasn’t until Martin hooked up with John Wallington, a thin, self-deprecating Aussie with considerable ballooning experience, that he began to make real progress. Wallington owns a business that offers scenic balloon tours of Canberra, and he and a companion were the first to balloon across Australia. Soon enough, Martin and Wallington had their first major sponsor, Dymocks Booksellers, one of the biggest book chains Down Under, and the Odyssey Expedition project was rechristened the Dymocks Flyer.

Unfortunately, Dymocks doesn’t possess the really deep pockets necessary to fully fund the $2 million quest. For a time, Martin and Wallington’s dream languished. Noting their balloon’s uncanny resemblance to a certain hygienic product, Martin even pitched the project to several condom manufacturers, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, however, the man who was to become their financial angel and copilot had been contemplating his own jump into the around-the-world balloon scrum. Dave Liniger, the multimillionaire founder and chairman of RE/MAX International, the Colorado-based real estate giant, was studying the possibility of mounting a stratospheric balloon trip as a solo endeavor when he heard about Martin and Wallington’s plan. A deal was struck, and this May, Liniger signed on as the third pilot and chief sponsor, and saddled the mission with the name Team RE/MAX. And so it was that while other tycoons — such as Chicago options trader Steve Fossett and Virgin Atlantic Airlines mogul Richard Branson — have become fixtures in the culture and science of ballooning through patient, committed involvement, Liniger has skipped all that.

“Life is an adventure!” Liniger exclaims, speaking loudly and clearly into a speakerphone in his sixth-floor office near Denver. “It’s all about how many experiences, how many memories, you can acquire.”

When he is not managing, with his wife, Gail, an empire that encompasses 3,000 offices and nearly 50,000 agents in 26 countries — a job that requires him to work 20-hour days, fly 270 days a year, and give more than 200 motivational speeches annually — Liniger is scuba diving, or adding to his collection of Arabian horses, or suddenly taking up golf and building his own private 18-hole course, or becoming (as he did over the last two years) a NASCAR driver who races stock cars nearly every weekend.

According to the Team RE/MAX promotional literature, Liniger “has been involved with ballooning since 1978.” That year, he reluctantly commissioned a red-white-and-blue RE/MAX hot-air balloon to fly at marketing and charity events, and over time he built a fleet of some 90 balloons based in 30 states. But in truth, before this summer the sum of Liniger’s personal in-flight experience was a single 10-minute excursion.

This doesn’t bother his teammates. “You can make fatal mistakes where we’re going,” Bob Martin says. “But Dave is a quick study. With just a few flights, he’ll be very proficient in ballooning.”

Liniger’s enthusiasm for his newest hobby seems boundless, but he is clearly banking on the fact that the flight will also pay pragmatic dividends. He has let his army of RE/MAX agents know that the trip can be an invaluable inspirational sales tool, and RE/MAX headquarters has distributed thousands of brochures titled “Why Go Around the World by Balloon?” to its franchisees. In question-and-answer format, the brochure explores concerns such as “Isn’t it dangerous to fly so high?” and “What happens if the capsule comes down in one of those oceans?” The brochure answers the second question with a comforting “the capsule floats.” But danger, even in sales material, inevitably raises its inconvenient head. “Obviously,” the brochure notes, “if the capsule develops a leak or other malfunction, chances of crew survival are low.”

After studying Team RE/MAX’s plans, examining its equipment, and talking with the key participants, a skeptical observer must soon confront a single overwhelming conclusion: These guys are going to die.

Alice Springs, we have a problem.

To hear Martin, Liniger, and Wallington tell it, they’re fully prepared for the worst that near-space can throw at them. If the balloon tears after liftoff, as it ascends through the tempestuous jet stream, the aeronauts will activate explosive bolt cutters that will sever the pod from the balloon, and the pod will deploy its own safety parachute. If any of the high-altitude life-support systems fail, the three can don their pressurized space suits. (Having failed to procure suits from NASA — apparently there were liability concerns — Team RE/MAX is buying Russian suits built to the same exacting standards as those used aboard the Mir space station.) “Sure, some people say it should be more highly designed, that it’s not up to NASA snuff,” Martin says of his equipment. “But the space shuttle had 17,000 people working on it and it still blew up.”

True. But does it make sense, then, to brave space travel in a canister outfitted in an Albuquerque garage and carried aloft by what is essentially a huge dry-cleaning bag?

Dwight Bawcom, manager of the National Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, has launched more than 1,700 unmanned balloons for NASA and has lent technical advice to Team RE/MAX. “We know Bob Martin, and we all have an affinity for him and wish him well,” Bawcom told a reporter recently. “But there isn’t anybody around here that’s going to crawl into that capsule with him.”

Don Towner, a retired Air Force officer and a veteran survival instructor for pilots flying the SR-71 Blackbird, is listed as an official member of the Team RE/MAX technical-support staff, but he sounds more like a dubious bystander when you ask about safety issues. Those space suits, for instance: There’s no use in bringing them, he says, unless (1) the pilots have had an intensive, long-term course of training in how to use them properly and (2) they wear them throughout the trip. “These aren’t just suits, but complicated systems,” Towner points out. “If there’s a decompression, there will be fog and roaring winds, just like in the movie Airport.” Before they can zip each other up, Towner says, they may become confused from the lack of oxygen. Hypothermia might set in; they might experience the bends. Then, if they get their suits on properly and have to bail out, they will face a free fall at speeds of more than 500 miles per hour (with its attendant risk of entering a 465-revolutions-per-minute death spin). If they survive the free fall and remember to pull their rip cords in time but land in the ocean, they’ll probably drown long before help arrives, Towner says.

Then there is the question of the team’s casual approach to the human factor. Will these undertrained, overfed guys survive nearly three weeks in a tin can without one of them having a coronary or a panic attack or going on a homicidal rampage? (“We get on quite well over the phone,” Wallington said this September, before the pilots had managed to get together more than once or twice. “Hopefully that will translate into good rapport in the capsule.”) The total lack of privacy will almost certainly prove trying. “When somebody has to go, we’ll set a small Porta Potti right here in the middle between the three of us,” Martin explains. “We’ll be real close by the end of this. It’s sort of like camping in a really small closet.”

Of course, campers sleep easy at night knowing that if their tent rips a hole, their eyes won’t be sucked out of their skulls and their blood won’t fizz like a just-opened can of soda. Unpleasant though such thoughts may be, Team RE/MAX will have to fend off these and others like them every moment it’s aloft. And then there is the ticklish problem of landing. Nobody has ever landed a balloon this size (“Its first flight is its test flight,” says Martin), and according to the official rules of the million-dollar around-the-world contest, as laid out by the Federation Aeronautique International, you don’t win if you don’t land — and stay alive for 48 hours afterward. “If they pick up too much speed trying to punch down through the tropopause during their descent,” Bawcom warns, “terminal velocity is a risk.”

But enough of the nay-saying. Where would Virgil “Gus” Grissom be if he had heeded all those niggling concerns about the Gemini program or the Apollo program? Perhaps alive, but we’ll never be sure. Thus there is always the chance that all will go according to plan with Team RE/MAX. Ingenuity and pluck may triumph over Murphy’s Law, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the revenge of unintended consequences.

For instance, if the scrubber fails, no problem. One afternoon at the Gondola Integration Facility, a technician explains to a group of visitors that the pilots can always avert a toxic buildup of CO2 (remember Apollo 13?) by grabbing a spare packet of lithium hydroxide and pouring some of the chemical out into the pod. The excess carbon dioxide will bond to the white powder and the air will become breathable again. To demonstrate, the technician produces a rusted paint can full of the chemical, pries the lid off with a screwdriver, and waves the open can in the air. Moments later the visitors begin to cough, then to hack, then to bend over in a veritable side-splitting seizure of respiratory distress. Within seconds, the technician is also making barking noises. “Believe me,” he croaks, hastily covering up the can, “the carbon dioxide levels have now dropped considerably in this area of the room.” After another paroxysm passes, he adds, “But I can assure you, this chemical does not cause any long-term damage.”

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