AS millionaire balloonist cruises world, `mission control' likes things boring

Thursday, August 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ While Steve Fossett is more than four miles above the South Pacific on his latest around-the-world balloon quest, Joe Ritchie is safely on the ground thousands of miles away, pecking out an e-mail to his airborne pal.

Ritchie's keyboarding and the muffled hum of a printer spitting out a copy of his message are the only sounds at Fossett's ``mission control'' at Washington University.

Sure it's dull, but that's the way Ritchie likes it.

``You don't like these things to be exciting. You'd rather they be boring,'' said Ritchie, near an inch-thick stack of e-mails he has traded with Fossett since the Chicago millionaire lifted off Saturday from Australia. This is the investment tycoon's fifth bid to circle the globe alone in a balloon.

``And for the last day or so, it's been closer to boring,'' Ritchie added, with a smile.

That's not to say there haven't been moments for Ritchie and his crew.

When Fossett lost communications with mission control for five hours not long into his flight, the adventurer climbed outside his 5 1/2-by-7-foot capsule to replace a broken antenna and switch to a laptop computer.

And when Fossett's helium-filled ``Solo Spirit'' balloon began veering too far south early Monday, crews here told him to shed weight and fly higher. Fossett was forced Monday to dump one full and one empty propane tank, and the balloon climbed and corrected course.

There were concerns Fossett might not have enough oxygen to last him the 14 to 20 days the trek may take. But Fossett has gotten acclimated, helping cut his use of stored oxygen from five liters a minute to just two.

By Wednesday, Fossett had covered 4,076 miles and was cruising 50 mph at 22,900 feet above the Pacific. Fossett was about 300 miles from Tonga, expecting to reach South America by the weekend before another long stretch over the Atlantic Ocean.

Fossett's cramped capsule will float if he is forced to ditch at sea, and a radio automatically will broadcast a locator signal for rescuers. He also has a four-man life raft, parachute and satellite navigation and communication equipment. He is eating military-style food rations.

Ritchie and a crew of mostly volunteers, including Bob Rice, the mission's chief meteorologist, work a half-dozen personal computers from which weather reports along Fossett's route are gleaned, then e-mailed to the balloonist. Fossett also gets tracking information and troubleshooting tips.

On a huge, laminated world map in mission control, a red line shows Fossett's travels and a sign posted on the map near computer printouts of cartoon dragons reads: '''Beyond here, dragons be': Steve Fossett goes where no balloonist has gone before.''