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help Fossett complete journey
By Kevin M. Kiley
Barry Tobias grabbed a sheet of paper that the Mission Control fax machine had just printed out and hurriedly walked it over to the media area on the other side of Brookings Hall, Room 300, where a news conference was in progress.
Ritchie skimmed over the paper -- the official report confirming the exact location of Steve Fossett's Bud Light Spirit of Freedom balloon -- and then was able to make the announcement.
The goal, 10 years and six attempts in the making, had been achieved.
Fossett had become the first person to fly solo around the world in a balloon.
Mission Control burst into cheers and applause as flight team members -- remarkably calm up to this point --broke out into huge smiles and exchanged handshakes, hugs and pats on the back.
At 8:53 a.m. St. Louis time July 2 -- just minutes before Ritchie's announcement -- Fossett crossed 116.42.16 east longitude, directly south of Northam, Western Australia, where he had taken off June 18 St. Louis time.
Fossett, addressing the news conference by satellite telephone from an altitude of 27,000 feet, said this achievement gave him enormous relief.
"It is a wonderful time for me," said Fossett, a University alumnus and trustee. "Finally, after six flights I have succeeded, and it is a very satisfying experience."
Fossett landed safely and unharmed at 4:34 p.m. St. Louis time July 3 near Lake Yamma Yamma, Queensland -- a remote area in Australia southeast of Birdsville -- having been aloft for 14 days and 19 hours.
Fortunately, ground team members, including Project Manager Tim Cole, were able to help Fossett pull the ripcord that detached the capsule from the rest of the balloon.
"Steve Fossett's achievement is exciting and significant, and it is rewarding that Washington University has provided support for his efforts," Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. "I extend my congratulations to all involved in Steve's historic circumnavigation of the world."
Fossett faced a potentially disastrous situation in the final 24 hours of the flight when a connector between a propane tank and a hose separated, igniting the fuel. Fortunately, he was awake at the time and in seconds was able to turn off all of the tanks. If he hadn't, "I would not be here," Fossett said after landing.
At times, the Bud Light Spirit of Freedom flew at more than 100 mph -- it reached 200 mph July 1 over the eastern coast of South Africa -- as it soared across the Southern Hemisphere. Fossett reached the coast of Chile June 26 and passed the halfway point early in the morning on his next day.
Chief Meteorologist Luc Trullemans guided Fossett around or above numerous threatening weather systems along the flight path, constantly making adjustments as the mission continued.
Shortly after landing, Fossett said he received confirmation that the capsule will be hung next to Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis in the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Thanks to a generous grant from hotel owner Barron Hilton, a ballooning enthusiast and a close friend of Fossett's, 20 University students served as interns at Mission Control, helping create and update the Web site (spiritoffreedom.com), monitoring the flight, working with the media, providing radio actualities and responding to phone calls 24 hours a day.
"I am especially proud of the students who served at Mission Control alongside others on Steve's team," Wrighton said. "I am also grateful to our public affairs staff for assistance with the media relations effort that has brought international visibility to the University and to Steve, a distinguished alumnus and trustee. I am very appreciative of Barron Hilton for providing us with generous financial support for this endeavor."
Both Tobias -- who also served as the project leader for the internship program --and Ritchie said the students' work on the mission was fabulous.
"The student interns were terrific," Ritchie said. "I give them the highest marks for the job they did. They made it a lot of fun."
And they came away with a unique experience.
"There were times when Mission Control was a little crazy, but it was pretty exciting and it was a fun atmosphere," said junior Erin Hickey, a member of the Web team. "This was a true once-in-a lifetime opportunity to help out with something like this. I was so glad to be a part of it."