Hot Air Over Cuba

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If it's Wednesday, it must be Cuba... The communist island said it would let the Breitling Orbiter 3 gas and hot air balloon pass over its airspace today en route to a world record. Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Britain's Brian Jones--the latest heirs of an aeronautical tradition that began in 1783 when a sheep, a duck and a rooster first went up in a Montgolfier balloon at Versailles France--are planning to land in North Africa on Saturday, and become the first men to circumnavigate the globe nonstop in a balloon. The Breitling, which headed south and then east from Switzerland on March 1, raced across Mexico from the Pacific on Tuesday, and headed out over the Caribbean. Piccard and Jones have already broken the world record of 14,235 miles set last August by American Steve Fossett.

Even if the Breitling Orbiter team fails to circle the globe -- and there have been an endless series of such attempts in recent years -- the mission serves to highlight how ballooning has both foreshadowed the future and come full circle. Ballooning began as a sport for daredevils with the first crossing of the English Channel in 1785, became the forerunner of a modern air force when it was used as aerial spying tool for the French in 1794, heralded the coming of passenger air service with the subsequent development of blimps, and introduced mankind to space exploration with high-altitude scientific balloons. Now in the 20th century, ballooning is back in vogue as a full-fledged sport. As the records have fallen, from the crossing of the Atlantic to the crossing of the Pacific, only one real challenge remains: circumnavigating the globe. It is a challenge whose call to people like Piccard and Jones is a reminder of how balloons have captured the human imagination from the very first days and allowed us to soar beyond our gravity-based lives.