Image: Michel Fournier
David Boily  /  AFP - Getty Images
Michel Fournier, 64, a former colonel of the French army reserve and parachute officer, provides a tour of his facilities in North Battleford, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Fournier sits in the spacecraft that will carry him to an altitude of 130,000 feet (40,000 meters) during his attempt to break the sound barrier in free fall.
updated 5/27/2008 12:15:00 PM ET 2008-05-27T16:15:00

A French skydiver's hope to set a new free-fall record has been dealt another setback — his ride to the sky left without him.

The helium balloon that Michel Fournier, 64, was going to use to soar to the stratosphere detached from the capsule he was going to use to jump from 130,000 feet (40,000 meters).

It happened as the balloon was being inflated on the ground at the airport in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

The balloon drifted away into the sky without the capsule.

Fournier had originally planned to make his jump from near the edge of space on Monday, but he had to postpone his plans for a day due to unfavorable wind conditions. The wind may have played a part in Tuesday's false start as well.

After the setback, Fournier vowed to try again — but the timing of the next attempt was not announced.

Fournier wants to break the record for the fastest and longest free fall, the highest parachute jump and the highest balloon flight. He also hopes to bring back data that will help astronauts and others survive in the highest of altitudes.

An army of technicians, data crunchers, balloon experts and weather specialists had gathered in North Battleford, a city of 14,000 near the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary, to assist Fournier in what would have been his third try to break the free-fall record. The first two attempts — in 2002 and 2003 — ended when wind gusts shredded his balloon before it even became airborne.

Fournier had hoped to make the jump in his native France, but the government denied him permission because it believed the project was too dangerous. He then came to North Battleford, a Canadian agricultural and transportation hub northwest of Saskatoon.

Weird science: Top unexplained mysteriesFournier's flight plan called for a 15-minute descent, zooming  through thin air at 932 mph an hour (1,500 kilometers per hour) — 1.7 times the speed of sound. If everything had gone according to plan, the skydiver would have smashed through the sound barrier before deploying his chute about 6,000 meters (3.75 miles) above the prairie wheat fields.

The current record for a high-altitude jump has held since 1960. As a U.S. Air Force captain, Joe Kittinger leapt from a balloon at an altitude of 101,700 feet (31,000 meters), about three-quarters of the height Fournier has been shooting for. Kittinger's jump was a research experiment for the space program, which was just getting started.

The 79-year-old Kittinger is now retired from the military but works as a writer and consultant in Altamonte Springs, Fla., while still flying balloons and planes. He said Fournier has kept in touch by e-mail.

"What I told him from the very beginning was that it's a very hostile environment needing elaborate protection and equipment and a good team," Kittinger said in an interview from his home.

"If the pressure suit fails, you die very quickly. It's not simply just making a skydive."

Fournier has made the jump his life's work at a cost of nearly $20 million.

He got started after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 — with some of the astronauts surviving in high altitudes only to die at splashdown.

The French government decided to experiment with ejections at super-high altitudes. Fournier was chosen to do the jumping, but when the project was canceled soon after, he decided to continue his research privately.

This report was supplemented by information from

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