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US Balloonist Halfway Through Round the World Attempt - 2002-06-27

American balloonist Steve Fossett is making his way across the South Atlantic Ocean, in his attempt to become the first person to fly around the world alone in a balloon.

Early Thursday, Mr. Fossett's Spirit of Freedom balloon cleared the East Coast of Argentina, as well as the halfway point of a flight he hopes will take him back to Australia in about a week.

The flight's mission control team in the U.S. city of St. Louis says South America was Mr. Fossett's last chance to abandon the trip by touching down on solid ground. But with the balloon functioning well and still stocked with plenty of supplies, the team says it will continue the flight.

Last year, Mr. Fossett gave up his around the world attempt in Brazil, when his team told him he did not have enough oxygen to finish the trip to Australia.

Mr. Fossett will spend the next two or three days crossing the South Atlantic on a path that will take him toward Cape Town, South Africa. According to flight meteorologist David Dehenauw, there could be rough weather ahead in a few days.

"When we get to the South African coast and to the southeast, there is an increasing risk of encountering some thunderstorms," he explained. "We are still figuring out what to do with that."

Mr. Fossett's South Atlantic crossing will be an adventure in itself. The balloon's flight path will take him over the icy waters near the South Sandwich Islands, north of Antarctica. Mission director Joe Ritchie does not expect any serious problems, but adds a crash in that part of the world would be especially dangerous.

"At 60 degrees South [of the equator], the winds are horrendous, the seas are high and there is no shipping close by," he explained. "A person who goes down there, you could actually die of nausea. You have 50-foot (15m) seas, you are in a little life raft. If you go down there, it is a bad situation."

This is the sixth time the 58-year-old former Chicago stockbroker has tried to fly solo around the world. His farthest flight was in 1998, when he made it 23,000 kilometers from Argentina to Australia before crashing in a thunderstorm. Mission controllers say if there are no problems with the rest of this flight, Mr. Fossett could land in Australia on July 2.