Yet the ICO Global balloon team may face yet another earthbound political threat: The winds are taking their craft straight toward the world's most closed and paranoid nation, North Korea. If they're fortunate, an atmospheric depression will steer them over South Korea instead. And from there, it's on to America, which the team hopes to reach by Christmas. From his perch 31,000 feet above the earth, Branson is no doubt wishing for the holiday to be a windy one.
Create a record company, an airline and a megastore. Make a billion dollars. Fly a giant balloon over Tibet during a late-December trip around the world. Make the Chinese government angry and -- maybe the greatest accomplishment of all -- get away with it. That's the scorecard so far for Richard Branson, as China bowed to pressure from the British government late Tuesday and granted the entrepreneur and balloonist extraordinaire permission to fly over its airspace. Branson and his two balloon-mates, American millionaire Steve Fossett and Per Lindstrand of Sweden, then drifted placidly -- if more slowly than they'd like -- over the terra-cotta warriors of the walled city of Xi'an, about 550 miles southwest of Beijing, Wednesday, and are now drifting toward the high seas.