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'Space' balloon bid canceled

The balloon is said to have twisted as it inflated.

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Science and Technology

LONDON, England -- Two British pilots have canceled their bid this year to break the 40-year-old world manned balloon altitude record.

The pair were forced to abort their historic flight to the edge of space Wednesday after their balloon developed a technical fault.

It was the second delay in as many days and put an end to the balloonists' hopes of launching their craft this year.

"It's over for this summer, everybody's very disappointed and very low," pilot Andy Elson told The Associated Press, adding: "I'm totally convinced that this is achievable."

Brian Jones of mission control said it was unclear whether the flight was prevented by a tear in the balloon or a valve problem.

The setback came less than an hour after the mission had been given the go-ahead.

Balloonists Elson and Colin Prescot had been set to launch the 1,270-foot-tall QinetiQ1 balloon between 8:30 and 9 a.m. (0730 and 0800 GMT), but just before 7:30 (0630 GMT) the mission was canceled.

"Apparently there was a twist as the balloon came off its drum. The helium that was in the top of the balloon came under pressure because of the twist and a seam split," Jones told CNN.

"We now need to do a thorough inspection. We didn't have enough helium to repair and refill (the balloon)."

The crew will have to take the balloon back to the Glastonbury, Somerset, premises of project sponsors QinetiQ for repairs, making it likely they will miss this year's "weather window" for launch, which ends in mid-September, Jones said.

David Anderson, managing director of QinetiQ, said: "I have said QinetiQ remains committed to this project."

Discussions would now take place "to see where we go from here," he said.

The casing will never be used as a balloon -- Elson said it would end up as bin bags.

"Things were going incredibly well. Because of that I think it is an even more devastating blow for the team on board and us in mission control," Jones said.

Prescot (left) and Elson during a round-the-world balloon attempt
Prescot (left) and Elson during a round-the-world balloon attempt

The pair had been due to launch Tuesday, but the 2 million ($3.1 million) flight was delayed 24 hours because unfavorable cloud cover posed the risk of tons of ice forming on the balloon, jeopardizing the chances of reaching the target altitude.

Prescot and Elson are aiming to break a 40-year-old altitude record on a mission Elson has dubbed "a day trip in space."

The adventurers want to soar 25 miles (40 km) above the Earth in a balloon taller than New York's Empire State Building.

Their balloon was set to be launched from a ship about 10 miles (6 km) off St. Ives, Cornwall, west England. Splashdown would have occurred nine hours after launch.

The pilots, wearing pressurized space suits, were to be strapped to an open gondola suspended beneath the balloon.

After a five-hour ascent which they hoped would end in a new altitude record of 132,000 feet (40,000 meters), the pilots planned to carry out scientific experiments for two hours.

The current record of 113,740 feet (34,668 meters) was set in May 1961 by Malcolm Ross and Vic Prather of the U.S. Navy with their Strato-Lab as part of the U.S. space program.

Prescot, 53, from Hampshire, southern England, and fellow pilot Elson, 48, from Somerset, southwest England, have been waiting since July for a suitable weather window for the attempt.

The two men had to abandon a planned attempt last year because of unsuitable weather.

Their balloon -- made from 1.7 tons of super-thin polythene -- is sponsored by QinetiQ, a UK science and technology research company.

The pilots are both commercial balloon pilots, with 40 years' experience between them and a number of ballooning records to their names.

-- CNN Correspondent Robyn Curnow contributed to this report

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