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Countdown to world balloon attempt

Elson (left), Prescot
Elson (left) left and Prescot during final tests for their record bid

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LONDON, England -- The countdown has begun to two British balloonists' bid to break the 40-year-old world manned balloon altitude record.

Colin Prescot and Andy Elson plan to fly the 1,270ft tall helium balloon QinetiQ1 to 132,000 feet -- breaking the record height of 113,740ft set in May 1961.

That record was set by Malcolm Ross and Vic Prather of the U.S. Navy with their Strato-Lab as part of the U.S. space program.

The QinetiQ1 balloon -- the size of New York's Empire State building -- is set to be launched from a ship about 10 miles off St Ives, Cornwall, in the West Country, Tuesday, between 6:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) and 8:00 a.m. (0700 GMT). Splashdown is expected about nine hours later.

Prescot, 53, from Hampshire, southern England, said as preparations continued Monday that he was "really, really pleased we are about to get off."

"It has been a long time coming but it has been worth it," he told the UK's Press Association in St. Ives.

He said he was "very excited about the whole mission," adding that nothing like it has been done for 40 years.

Prescot and fellow pilot Elson, 48, from Somerset, south-western England, will be wearing pressurized space suits and will be breathing pure oxygen for several hours before the launch.

The balloon made from super-thin polythene will be inflated with helium in an operation lasting three hours.

Prescot said the last 15 minutes of the launch operation would involve unwinding the balloon and attaching the open gondola in which they would be traveling.

Prescot (left) and Elson during a round-the-world balloon attempt
Prescot (left) and Elson during a round-the-world balloon attempt

"All that has to be a pretty slick operation," he told PA.

A crucial part of the high tech operation will involve rolls of humble sticky tape which will be used to repair any tears in the balloon fabric as in unwinds.

The balloon -- sponsored by QinetiQ, the UK science and technology research company -- is expected to be visible from as far away as London during its flight.

Scientists from the Russian Space agency Zvezda will be on board the launch ship to help the pilots dress in the space suits.

The conditions on their open platform will resemble those on the surface of Mars, with temperatures dropping as low as -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), then rising to around -25C (-13F) and with high levels of radiation.

At their target altitude the pilots will be floating in a virtually atmosphere-free environment and be able to see the curvature of the Earth.

The balloon is made from 1.7 tonnes of super-thin polyethylene, and will have a volume at 132,000ft of 44 million cubic feet.

The pilots are both commercial balloon pilots, with 40 years' experience between them and a number of ballooning records to their names.

Prescot and Elson -- who will be picked up by the RAF after splashing down in the Atlantic after the flight -- have been waiting since July for a suitable weather window for the attempt.

The two men, who had to abandon a planned attempt last year because of unsuitable weather, are due to launch from QinetiQ's vessel Triton, a prototype trimaran warship.

Spectators were being advised by police not to go to St. Ives, which is already packed with holidaymakers, but to go to the many vantage points along the north Cornwall coast.

Police said people would be able to see the balloon "from miles away."


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