China nearly scotched the mission when it ordered them to land at an airfield in Lhasa, Tibet, Tuesday, but the balloon overshot the target and couldn't come down anywhere else in the mountainous region. An appeal by British prime minister Tony Blair finally secured them the right to overfly northern China, the last geopolitical hurdle on their round-the-world flight. But the threat of ice buildup forced ICO Global to use more fuel than anticipated to stay above the Himalayan clouds, and with sluggish winds pushing them along at 50 mph -- less than half the speed needed to reach Europe -- the success of the mission is still an open question.
Although Richard Branson and his team have avoided the ignominy of aborting their balloon flight because of Chinese territorial sensitivity, they're not home free by any stretch. The crew of the ICO Global hot-air balloon is now wafting over Tibet in search of a fast draft that will carry them swiftly eastward -- and out of Chinese airspace.