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Up, Up And Away - AGAIN!

So far, so good.

Adventurer Steve Fossett drifted high above Australia on Wednesday, after launching his sixth bid to become the first person to fly solo around the world in a balloon.

Luc Trullemans, the mission's chief meteorologist, called upper-level atmospheric conditions "very great," with strong winds blowing from the west.

Trullemans said Fossett ideally would reach New Zealand in two to three days, then cross the south Pacific and reach the coast of Chile in six days. Fossett's goal is to complete the trip in 15 days.

Fossett, a 58-year-old investment tycoon with a yearning for adventure, clambered into his closet-sized capsule around dawn wearing a parachute and crash helmet. Then, as winds that had delayed his launch for hours dropped, he fired propane burners to heat the helium and air filling his 140-foot-high balloon and rose into the blue skies over Northam, a western Australian farming town. More than 1,000 people turned out to watch Fossett take off.

The wind was too strong during the preferred pre-dawn take-off period but eased to a manageable three knots as the sun rose over the outback, allowing Fossett to take off.

"He said basically 'I don't want to hang around, we've got to take the risk, we've got to go for it'," the spokesman said.

As the outback quickly heats up during the day, thermals create strong winds at lower altitudes.

In comments on the mission's Web site, mission director Joe Ritchie described the launch as "almost spookily good" despite the wind.

Ritchie said Fossett's preparations had been meticulous and now he was dependent on high altitude winds to propel his balloon 18,000 miles eastward around the world.

"At the end of the day, you're still up there with the wind. That's the nature of the case. You can't predict that far out," Ritchie said from Fossett's mission control center at Washington University in St. Louis.

Fossett holds world records in ballooning, sailing and flying airplanes. He also swam the English Channel in 1985, placed fourth in the Iditarod dogsled race in 1992 and participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in 1996.

He describes flying a balloon solo around the world as one of aviation's last great challenges.

He's certainly determined to crack it. Among hair-raising ends to his previous five attempts, he's plummeted out of the sky into the Coral Sea and been forced to ditch the balloon on a Brazilian cattle ranch.

A balloon already has flown around the globe: Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard and Englishman Brian Jones completed the trip as a team in 1999.

Fossett's last attempt, the one that ended in the Brazilian field, lasted 12 days, making it the longest-ever solo balloon flight.

But it also was plagued by worries that Fossett did not have enough oxygen. This time, he is taking twice as much.

While airborne, Fossett sits in a closet-sized Kevlar and carbon capsule under the balloon breathing oxygen through a mask and eating military-style rations. The balloon will drift about six miles above sea level for most of the flight.

Fossett will take short naps, getting perhaps four hours of sleep each day. The cramped capsule is full of sophisticated communications and navigational equipment, including satellite phones and global positioning system equipment.

The Washington University mission control center will monitor the flight and weather and regularly communicate with Fossett via e-mail and satellite phone.

At mission control in St. Louis, Ritchie said Fossett's backers remain undaunted by his five previous failures.

"I think, maybe, we're all just dumb. I don't know," he said.

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