French Space Diver's Balloon Takes Off ... Without Him
Fournier pictured with the small pressurised spacecraft that will protect him against UV rays and the tremendous cold. Totally controlled from earth, it contains the necessary oxygen, instruments of measurement and control, as well as flight data recording instruments including sound and image recording. Image
Credit: Big Jump

NORTH BATTLEFORD, Saskatchewan (AP) - A French skydiver's hope to set a new free-fall record might have come to an end on Tuesday when his ride to the sky left without him.

The helium balloon Michel Fournier, a former army paratrooper, was going to use to soar to the stratosphere detached from the capsule he was going to use to jump from 40,000 meters (130,000 feet).

It happened after the balloon was inflated on the ground at the airport in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. The balloon drifted away into the sky without the capsule.

Fournier appeared disappointed as left the capsule and walked to the hanger. He was hugged by members of his entourage.

The balloon was reported to have cost at least US$200,000 (euro127,000) and Fournier was said to have already exhausted his finances. His handlers planned a media briefing for later Tuesday.

Fournier, 64, had planned to make the attempt Monday, but had to postpone his plans because of weather conditions.

Attempts in 2002 and 2003 ended when wind gusts shredded his balloon before it even became airborne.

Fournier hoped to break the record for the fastest and longest free fall, the highest parachute jump and the highest balloon flight. He also hopes to bring back data that will help astronauts and others survive in the highest of altitudes.

An army of technicians, data crunchers, balloon and weather specialists arrived recently in North Battleford, a city of 14,000 near the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary, for the attempt.

Fournier had planned to make the jump in his native France, but the government denied him permission because it believed the project was too dangerous. He then came to North Battleford, an agricultural and transportation hub northwest of Saskatoon.

Spokeswoman Francine Lecompte-Gittens said Monday's postponement was due to unfavorable weather.

Fournier, who has more than 8,000 jumps under his belt, planned to be three-times higher than a commercial jetliner. A mountain climber would have to ascend the equivalent of four Mount Everests stacked one on top of the other.

It is expected to take Fournier 15 minutes just to come down, screaming through thin air at 1,500 kilometers per hour (932 mph) - 1.7 times the speed of sound - smashing through the sound barrier, shock waves buffeting his body, before finally deploying his chute about 6,000 meters (yards) above the prairie wheat fields.