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The quest for breaking ballooning records continues. Within a week of American millionaire Steve Fossett's solo flight around the world, two experienced British balloonists are launching an attempt to break an altitude record held since the 1960s when NASA was testing for their Mercury space mission.

At a news conference Tuesday, adventurers Andy Elson and Colin Prescot said they plan to visit space or as close as they can get to some 132,000 feet above sea level. The high-flying duo are now waiting for the right weather conditions to make their attempt.

Elson and Prescot both hold a variety of records and have been associated with many of recent ballooning record attempts. Their trip has required new innovations to insure success. The balloon itself when inflated with helium will be as tall as the Empire State Building -- and the largest balloon ever made.

The material used will seem like an ordinary piece of a plastic freezer bag lined with Kevlar for insulation and strength. The balloon will be anchored to an open faced gondola, requiring the pilots to wear spacesuits in order to overcome the lack of oxygen and extreme temperature conditions which can reach to levels of 70 degrees below Celsius.

The gondola is designed to absorb any type of landing, and is outfitted with all the communications and life support systems.

One of the more outstanding features is "The Zephyr" -- a solar powered glider specially designed to fly at high altitudes. Tethered to the balloon, it will feed real time data and pictures to mission control.

"We used every bit of technology we can find on the planet. We developed lots and lots of new things," said Elson. Among the potential pitfalls facing the pilots is solar radiation. As the gondola needs to be light in weight and therefore open faced, the radiation facing both men is like taking hundreds of X-rays in 15 hours. In the unlikely event of a solar flare, both men would be burnt to a crisp.

But there is no chance of Elson and Prescot floating off into space. The balloon has escape vents for the helium not only to stop ascent but to engage into a rapid descent if they are required to do so.

The two pilots said fear is always on their minds when engaging in extreme ventures.

"We've trained for such a long time now. We've been through every eventuality. We just have to concentrate and just work out what you are going to do," said Prescot.

At Tuesday's press conference, Elson and Prescot announced a launch window sometime this summer.

In order to insure inflation of the balloon is successful, the launch pad is located on a ship which will be circling an area just south of England. The whole attempt should take around 15 hours.

Elson and Prescot's endeavor is being financed by Europe's largest independent team of scientists and engineers, QinetiQ, which is based in London. In addition to carrying a variety of scientific experiments, QinetiQ held a scientific experiment competition for schoolchildren as a way of bringing science to children. One experiment will show how big a bubble gum bubble can get in low atmospheric pressure.

But in the end, Elson and Prescot said the record-breaking attempt is pure adventure.

"This is just a dream, sitting on the edge of space and gazing down on the earth," Prescot said.

Alba Ziegler-Bailey is an intern working at MSNBC.com’s London bureau.

MSNBC 2001

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