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Skydiver to fall dow nto Earth from space

A skydiver from France, who is 64 years old, prepares to set a new record as he steps of a helium-powered balloon at the height of 40,000 meters (130,000 feet) above the earth’s surface. In other words, the man will brave a free fall from the very void of space – from the stratosphere. The man will be wearing a special suit, a helmet and a parachute. If the stunt goes well, the skydiver - Michel Fournier - will break all free fall records.

Fournier's launch manager, Dale Sommerfeldt, acknowledged Sunday that the overcast skies and wind gusts of 40 kph (25 mph) at the launch site in North Battleford, Saskatchewan looked ominous.

"Times like this look really, really bad, but in less than 12 hours it could be completely changed," Sommerfeldt said.

"The forecast is a bit marginal for (Monday), but we have to take the chance and wait for it. If it does change and it's good then we'll fly. If not, we'll just put everything away and we'll try again another day."

If Monday's launch is thwarted by the weather, Sommerfeldt said they'll try again Tuesday morning when the forecast looks more favorable. Ideally, the ground speed winds would be no more than 10 kph (6 mph) in order for the crew to launch the massive balloon.

Sommerfeldt is one of an army of technicians, data crunchers, balloon and weather specialists who have arrived at this city of 14,000 near the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary for Fournier's third attempt.

The first two - in 2002 and 2003 - ended when wind gusts shredded his balloon before it even became airborne.

This time, the balloon is three layers thick and the plan is to go up before the sun comes up Monday - when the skies are expected to be clear and, hopefully, without a breath of wind.

"We have a better balloon now than we had before and that's what caused us problems before. So we're hoping this time will be a success," Sommerfeldt said.

"Right now it looks like it's just the weather that's going to bother us."

Fournier, a former army paratrooper with more than 8,000 jumps under his belt, hopes to bring back data that will help astronauts and others survive in the highest of altitudes. He wants to also break the record for the fastest and longest free fall, the highest parachute jump and the highest balloon flight.

He will 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 him 15 minutes just to come down, screaming through thin air at 1,500 kilometers an 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.

When he does, if he does, the man whose record he is trying to eclipse will be sitting at his home in Altamonte Springs, Florida, near Orlando, waiting for news.

Joe Kittinger set the record almost 50 years ago, in 1960. As a U.S. Air Force captain, he leapt from a balloon at 31,000 meters (101,700 feet), about three-quarters of the height Fournier is now shooting for - as a research experiment for the space program.

The 79-year-old Kittinger, now retired but working as a writer and consultant while still flying balloons and planes, said Fournier keeps in touch by e-mail.

"What I told him from the very beginning was that it's a very hostile environment needing elaborate protection and equipment and a good team," said Kittinger in an interview from his home.

"If the pressure suit fails, you die very quickly. It's not simply just making a skydive."

Fournier has made the jump his life's work at a cost of nearly US$20 million (EUR 12.7 million).

He got started after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 - with some of the astronauts surviving in high altitudes only to die at splashdown.

The French government decided to experiment with ejections at super-high altitudes. Fournier was chosen to do the jumping, but when the project was canceled soon after, he decided to continue his research privately.

He had planned to make the jump in his native France, but the government denied him permission, dubbing the project too dangerous.

He then came to North Battleford, an agriculture and transportation hub northwest of Saskatoon. The surrounding area has few lakes and lots of open land to go with an underused airport that serves as the perfect launch point.

"It's exciting," said Julian Sadlowski, the mayor of North Battleford, who made Fournier an honorary citizen this week.

"Saskatchewan is going to be recognized as the spot where they had the jump from the highest height by man."

Sadlowski said he's known Fournier for a year and said the man has the fire to succeed, even at great personal risk.

"He reminds me of a young boy who crawls up a tree and has to go right to the end," said Sadlowski.

"He's so passionate about this jump."

Sadlowski said he'll be out at the airport Monday for the launch.

By the zero hour, Fournier will already have been breathing pure oxygen for two hours to help his body adapt.

The balloon will then rise, taking more than two hours to reach its apex before he steps out to pierce the sky in temperatures plunging to minus 65 Celsius (minus 85 Fahrenheit) and in pressures that, without a special suit, would quickly bring his blood to a boil.

He'll be tracked with global positioning units, radar, a helicopter and a Learjet. He expects to land within a 40-kilometer (25-mile) radius south of North Battleford. If he lands unconscious, his team will have 15 minutes to get to him before his air runs out.

Kittinger says should he reach the peak altitude, he'll be humbled by a panorama as spectacular as it is deadly.

"It's beautiful," he said. "But it's very hostile."