Around the World in a Balloon in 20 Days

After two decades of failed attempts, a balloon sails into history with the help of technology and the weather

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In the novel Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg employed all manner of transport--steamers, railways, yachts, carriages, trading vessels, sledges and even elephants. But no balloon. It was Hollywood, not Jules Verne, that sent the intrepid Brit off in that aircraft. Trivia, you say? But there was nothing trivial about the real-life fulfillment of what seemed to be quixotic fantasy last week in Northern Africa. In a 180-ft.-high balloon, a silvery dare in the air, two adventurers--Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, 41, and British balloon instructor Brian Jones, 51--completed their tour of the world in 20 days. The stakes were different (a purse of $1 million, courtesy of Anheuser-Busch, as opposed to 20,000[pounds] in Verne), but their intent was the same. They sought to prove a point--to themselves and the world.

The Breitling Orbiter 3 crossed the finish line (9.27[degrees] west longitude) over Mauritania last Saturday. Piccard was ecstatic: "I am with the angels and just completely happy," he said over satellite relay. Jones, for his part, said calmly, "I am going to have a cup of tea, like any good Englishman." They had sailed into history. And they decided to sail on a little more. "We do not land. We go to Egypt," Piccard radioed air-traffic control in Senegal. "We are a balloon flying around the world." "I will be tearing their eyes out when I see them," their erstwhile rival Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, told TIME. "But apart from that, I think a hug and a bottle of champagne will be appropriate."

Since 1981 there have been nearly 20 attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon. Steve Fossett, a Chicago millionaire who attempted the feat five times, plunged into the Coral Sea after traveling 14,236 miles last August. And on Christmas Day he went down again near the coast of Hawaii, taking along his partners, Per Lindstrand of Sweden and Branson. The U.S. Coast Guard fished them out at a cost--to taxpayers--of about $130,000. Setting the elusive record was worth the trouble to Fossett. "I can't tell you how it ranks with the others, like climbing Mount Everest or making the first transatlantic airplane flight," said Fossett. "But it's one of the great explorations."

It's tough for pioneers to make a name for themselves these days. Both poles have been reached, the Atlantic has been crossed and recrossed, and the eagle has landed. So why not do it in a balloon? Well, what can you say about a pastime whose first passengers were, in an experiment by the French Montgolfier brothers in 1783, a duck, a rooster and a sheep? No wonder Piccard has a complex. "The way the public sees it is this," he explained before lift-off. "If we don't leave, we are idiots. If we do leave but don't succeed in our mission, we are incompetent. But if we do succeed, it's because it was easy and anyone could have done it."

But you see, the psychiatrist has a legacy to uphold: his grandfather Auguste was the first to reach the stratosphere in a balloon, and his father Jacques dove to the deepest point of the ocean in a bathyscaphe. "Bertrand believes it is his destiny to fly a balloon around the world," said his rival Andy Elson, as the Orbiter 3 pushed the world record further and further.

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