He has spent two decades and nearly $20 million in a quest to fly to the upper reaches of the atmosphere with a helium balloon, just so he can jump back to earth again. Now, Michel Fournier says, he is ready at last.
Depending on the weather, Fournier, a 64-year-old retired French army officer, will attempt what he is calling Le Grand Saut (The Great Leap) on Sunday from the plains of northern Saskatchewan.
He intends to climb into the pressurized gondola of the 650-foot balloon, which resembles a giant jellyfish, and make a two-hour journey to 130,000 feet. At that altitude, almost 25 miles up, Fournier will see both the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth. He will experience weightlessness.
Then he plans to step out of the capsule, wearing only a special space suit and a parachute, and plunge down in a mere 15 minutes.
If successful, Fournier will fall longer, farther and faster than anyone in history. Along the way, he can accomplish other firsts, by breaking the sound barrier and records that have stood for nearly 50 years.
"It's not a question of the world records," Fournier wrote via e-mail through an interpreter on Friday from his base in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. "What is important are what the results from the jump will bring to the safety of the conquest of space. However, the main question that is being asked today by all scientists is, can a man survive when crossing the sound barrier?"
In the past two weeks, Fournier's 40-person team has assembled at the launch site, about 90 miles northwest of Saskatoon. The remote Canadian plains were picked after French authorities denied permission because of safety concerns.
Fournier faces plenty of perils. Above 40,000 feet, there is not enough oxygen to breathe in the frigid air. He could experience a fatal embolism. And 12 miles up, should his protective systems fail, his blood could begin to boil because of the air pressure, said Henri Marotte, a professor of physiology at the University of Paris and a member of Fournier's team.
"If the human body were exposed at very high altitude, the loss of consciousness is very fast, in five seconds," Marotte said. "Brain damage, in three or four minutes."
Fournier's gondola will be sealed, pressurized and equipped with oxygen. He will be in communication with a ground crew on the climb and will be tracked by G.P.S. He will wear a pressure suit and a sealed helmet supplied with oxygen.
* I'm not pleased with that analogy, but I can't seem to come up with a better one. Consider it up for grabs.