As the race to soar around the globe heats up, Dick Rutan prepares for liftoff
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Dispatches, February 1998
The Borax Desert around Mojave, California, is the hallowed ground of experimental aviation, a place where sonic booms are considered white noise and where itchy throttle-jockeys nurse Yeager-sized dreams. Here, in an old airport hangar, 59-year-old pilot Dick Rutan spent the early winter working out the bugs in a carbon-fiber capsule that he hopes
Twelve years ago, Rutan became international flavor-of-the-month when he flew nonstop around the world in a custom airplane dubbed the Voyager. Any day now, depending on global weather conditions, Rutan and copilot David Melton plan to attach a Rozier envelope to their pressurized capsule, ascend to 36,000 feet from their Albuquerque launch site, and hitch onto the jet stream
Those are enormous ifs, of course, but then distance ballooning is a pursuit that perpetually hangs on hypotheticals. Anything from a defective 50-cent clamp to an errant 747 could spell doom for Rutan’s $1 million balloon, officially called the Global Hilton after his principal backer, hotel magnate Barron Hilton. Then again, someone else could pull off the feat before Rutan
Branson’s debacle means one less worry for Rutan, who admits he’s in this game for one thing only. “Remember,” he says, “the second guy who makes it will be rewarded with eternal obscurity.” While no one is placing bets (“You can’t handicap in this sport — it’s all just wild guesses,” says noted British balloon manufacturer Donald Cameron), the Global Hilton has been
And should Rutan succeed, what would be left for him in a world devoid of aviation plums? “I’d like to go to Proxima Centauri,” he says. “It’s our closest star, and I think there may be inhabitable planets.”