Certainly no balloon attempt to cross the Atlantic has had the technological support Forbes has mustered. The latest, most sophisticated resources of the space age have been incorporated into the project. Some of the best scientific minds have contributed their expertise, and federal agencies dealing with wind and atmospheric conditions have lent unprecedented cooperation.
RCA, North American Rockwell, Raven Industries, Garrett and numerous other pioneers of the aerospace industry have dedicated skills over and above those that money can buy, and nothing that money can buy has been overlooked. By the time Forbes is airborne, it is estimated that well over a million dollars will have been directly invested; the amount of indirect investment is impossible to calculate.
To compare Forbes' Windborne to, say, the ill-fated The Free Life, which carried British Balloonist Malcolm Brighton and Americans Rodney and Pamela Anderson to their deaths in an attempt to cross the Atlantic four years ago, is to compare a Ferrari to a three-speed bicycle. Of the six other craft to try the crossing in the last 15 years only Thomas Gatch's doomed Light Heart bore even vague similarities to Windborne. Forbes was there when Gatch took off last February from Harrisburg, Pa. in a fiber-glass gondola suspended from 10 helium-filled balloons. Contact with Gatch was lost the next day, and although he was sighted three days later near the Canary Islands, he was never heard from again.
"There is little likelihood of such a communications failure in Windborne," Forbes says. "Its four-unit computer system is only slightly less sophisticated than the communications systems in a NASA space probe. As in space expeditions, everything is backed up by secondary systems. And by beginning the flight in Southern California instead of from the East Coast we will have all systems operative at least one day over land before proceeding out over water.
"Technical information will be relayed from Windborne to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Virginia via Synchronous Meteorological Satellite, the first non-governmental use of the system to date. Then this information will be sent to RCA's Globcom headquarters in New York City, with raw position data transmitted by Transit satellites that circumnavigate the earth every 90 minutes; all will then be fed into computers to pinpoint Windborne's position to within 20 miles.
"Voice communication will be provided by use of VHF channels over land, and high-frequency maritime and aeronautical radio. Everybody from RCA to AT&T and the FAA, and comparable communications centers in half a dozen foreign countries, will monitor the flight, not to mention our own DC-9."
Like Gatch's Light Heart, Windborne employs a series of helium-filled balloons; in the latter case, 13 instead of 10. Made of .005-inch-thick, high-strength polyester plastic film, each spherical super-pressure balloon is 33 feet in diameter and composed of 29 separate panels heat-bonded together. Although the material looks and feels like the plastic divider in a loose-leaf notebook, its strength has been exhaustively proved in meteorological balloons flown at altitudes of 40,000 to 80,000 feet for more than 700 days.
With a single balloon topping four tiers of three balloons each coupled to the main tether line supporting the gondola, Forbes says, "The malfunction of two, or even three, balloons is possible without detriment to the flight."
The gondola itself is a sphere that measures 7'8" in diameter. It is constructed of .025-inch-thick stretch-formed aluminum surrounded by 2� inches of insulating material covered by an aluminized plastic film inset with eight�-inch-thick acrylic windows. "Despite the thin skin," Forbes says, "the gondola's designers estimate that the shell is capable of withstanding stresses eight times those anticipated in this flight."
Inside the gondola, its primary load structure is a single 14-inch-wide mast extending from floor to ceiling and housing the entire battery of communications and life-support systems, including what is considered one of the most advanced air-revitalization units yet developed. The remaining interior space surrounding the control core is about equal to that of a small broom closet. This will be home for five to 10 days or more for Forbes and Dr. Thomas Heinsheimer, the 35-year-old California scientist and super-pressure-balloon expert who will accompany him on the flight.