New High: A Helium Trip

BALLOONISTS AND BILLIONAIRES HAVE risked their lives and spent millions racing to be the first to travel nonstop around the world in a balloon. This week, a team of businessmen will attempt the feat by going higher than any balloonists have ever gone before. ""There have been 17 attempts, and 17 failures,'' says real-estate magnate Dave Liniger, one of three crew members on Team Re/Max (only two will likely go aloft). ""They all ran into weather.'' The answer? Team Re/Max is using an enormous helium-filled balloon to hoist itself above the weather, and into the near-space environment of the stratosphere. They'll avoid hostile airspace by launching from Australia and traveling around the Southern Hemisphere.

Balloonists call their quest ""the last great adventure.'' To the rest of the world, it's more like a risky ego trip for the superrich. ""It's just the sheer magnificence of it,'' says Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson, whose own most recent attempt left him and his ICO teammates in the drink off Hawaii this Christmas. For the premillennial midlife crisis, it seems, just buying a red Porsche is no longer enough.

The Balloon Made of the same material as a dry-cleaner's bag, the 2.5-ton balloon swells as it rises into the thinning atmosphere. Expanded fully, it is about the size of a football stadium.

460 feet in diameter, 40 million cubic feet at full inflation

The Route The Re/Max team hopes to travel 22,800 miles in about 18 days. The ICO team traveled lower and faster, but succumed to weather.

The Gondola Built like a space capsule and not much bigger than a minivan, the pressurized gondola will serve as cockpit, kitchen and life-support system for the two- to three-man crew, who will also have spacesuits--just in case. 7 feet fall and 8 feet in diameter

The Altitudes Other long-range balloons can't rise above the troposphere. The much larger Re/Max balloon will lift into the calmer stratosphere.

Re/Max team: 130,000 feet maximum cruising altitude, speeds up to 80 mph

New High: A Helium Trip | News