Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Millionaire Adventurer Steve Fossett Opens the Path to Amateur Exploration

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Millionaire Adventurer Steve Fossett Opens the Path to Amateur Exploration

Article excerpt

Mount Everest? Scaled. The moon? Trodden upon. Planet Earth? Mapped, modeled, and Googled via satellite.

This generation of humanity could be forgiven for feeling a certain exploration ennui.

But, in fact, the explorer ethos has received a fresh jolt of oxygen in recent years, led by a wealthy set of record- chasers and yeoman scientists and followed by Everyman adventurers who are transforming traditional notions of travel and sport.

One of these latter-day pioneers, Steve Fossett, remains missing at press time after not returning from a flight Monday over the sagebrush of northwestern Nevada.

"He's part of a renaissance that's going on in American culture right now," says Robert Zimmerman, an author and space historian. For decades, the space shuttle remained the last US rocket design. Now there are a flurry of planes and rockets, and Mr. Fossett along with others, like Sir Richard Branson and Dennis Tito, have helped generate buzz for the trend. "He made the general public interested."

While Mr. Fossett has led the pack in knocking off some of the arguably dwindling Guinness Book "firsts" for earth-bound travel, in doing so he has helped expand the horizons of technology and imagination.

"There just weren't that many firsts, left ... and he got a couple of the big ones," says Craig Ryan, an author of books on 20th- century balloonists who laid foundations for space travel.

"The great achievements that happen - like a man walking on the moon - it never was just one spectacular leap that got us there, it was always thousands and thousands of small steps. And Fossett is one of those steps," says Mr. Ryan.

In performing such feats as flying a plane solo around the world without refueling or stopping, Fossett provided the nerves for technological advancement. Engineer Burt Rutan designed both Fossett's circumnavigating plane and the spacecraft that won the X- PRIZE - a contest that has helped reenergize space exploration.

Fossett has plans to fly a glider up to 100,000 feet, says friend Dan Goldin, the former head of NASA. That extreme altitude has an atmospheric density similar to the surface of Mars.

"So here's a guy who's going to do old-fashioned aviation on Earth, and he's going to be really opening up the possibility for flying something on Mars," says Mr. Goldin. "People think all he wants to do is break records."

Goldin has hope that his friend will avoid the fate of other aviators like Antoine de Saint Exupery and Amelia Erhardt. "If anyone could pull out, it's Steve."

The search continued yesterday for Fossett, who took off Monday morning from a private airstrip 70 miles southeast of Reno, Nev. He was flying a singe-engine plane in a reported attempt to locate sites where he could break the land-speed record in a rocket- propelled car, according to wire service reports. …

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