A split seam forced the two British record attempters to abort their adventure an hour before take off on Wednesday.
The QinetiQ 1 mission had aimed to break the world altitude record for a manned balloon flight, set at 34,440m over 40 years ago by US Navy balloonists.
But pilots Andy Elson and Colin Prescot wanted to suspended themselves on an open platform beneath a 390m helium balloon – as tall as the Empire State Building and with polyethylene walls as thin as a household freezer bag.
According to the launch crew, the balloon twisted as it was being prepared for launch, putting the helium inside under pressure and causing a seam to split.
Remarkably relaxed following the failed attempt, Elson said: “When we get it right, it’ll work and when it works, we’ll get a record and when we get a record, we’ll come back and we’ll have a cracking party.”
He said the team would not try to re-use the balloon. “It’ll go back into the melting pot and come out as bin bags.”
“I’m totally convinced that this is achievable”
The planned launch from a ship off Cornwall in southwest England had already been delayed for 24 hours because of bad weather.
Cold and deadly
During the flight, the two men would have worn spacesuits for protection from temperatures that could have dropped to minus 70C (-94F) and deadly atomic nuclei produced by supernova explosions in outer space.
An earlier attempt to beat the record set by the US Navy in 1961 saw a Russian pilot lose his life in a parachute descent.
Mission director, Brian Jones, said a further attempt would be impossible this year because they had lost the “weather window”. Despite the setback, Elson believed the record could still be broken.
“I’m totally convinced that this is achievable,” he said, with weather conditions in the UK probably permitting another attempt in May 2004.
“Possibly December or January would be good for the southern hemisphere, but I think – I haven’t spoken to Colin yet about it – but I suspect he’s very much of the mind that I am that we’d really like to do it here [England].”
The team had planned to carry out experiments for universities and their sponsors QinetiQ – an offshoot of Britain’s Ministry of Defence – including a study of cosmic radiation and the collection of micrometeorites.