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Weight problems force balloon team cutback

A trio of pilots planning the latest bid to fly nonstop around the world must leave behind one crewmate after revelations Saturday that their balloon may not be able to reach its cruising altitude with all three aboard.

One of the balloonists will have to bow out to make room for an extra 450 pounds of ballast. The weight is needed for the balloon to safely ascend through the tropopause, a band of the atmosphere between 40,000 feet and 50,000 feet, and reach a target altitude of 130,000 feet.

The trio has not decided which pilot _ Dave Liniger, a Denver real estate magnate; Bob Martin, an Albuquerque, N.M., journalist and project developer; or Australian balloonist John Wallington _ will stay behind when the balloon launches _ tentatively Monday at dawn (2:30 p.m. EST today).

"At the end of the day, it may be as simple as tossing a coin," said Wallington, who like the other pilots has trained more than a year for the mission.

The pilots said the weight problem had been known for days, but was only made public Saturday after attempts to solve the problem failed.

"Our launch team has advised us that a potentially dangerous situation now exists," said Liniger, the mission's main financier.

"The only rational decision is to remove nonballast weight from inside the gondola _ one pilot and his support provisions," he said.

Ballast, which is used to control the balloon during flight and avoid storms that could force the balloon down, can help speed the ascent if dropped just below the tropopause.

Unless the balloon rises through the atmosphere quickly, extreme cold _ minus 94 _ could make the balloon's lunch-wrap thin plastic brittle and prone to rupture.

The weight problems are the latest setback to the U.S.-Australian team's mission, which has been delayed for almost a week by weather and equipment problems.

Weather conditions in Australia's desert outback give the Re/Max International team a window for takeoff that lasts until mid-January. After that, the high altitude winds now blowing in a favorable westward direction will shift until next December.

The team hopes to succeed where other attempts have failed by flying higher than any previous manned balloon flight, reaching altitudes of 24 miles at the edge of the atmosphere.

The pilots will hang below the balloon in a 7-feet-by-8-feet pressurized capsule packed with life-support systems, scientific equipment, food, waste disposal units, cameras and communications gear.

The planned balloon flight comes a week after a failed attempt by Chicago millionaire Steve Fossett, British tycoon Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand of Sweden that resulted in a landing off Hawaii after crossing more than half the globe.