Balloons may be a primitive way of air travel, but they have a firm grounding in scientific research. And while the basics of using balloons for flight haven't changed, the materials, payload size, altitudes, etc., have.
NASA has a scientific balloon program at the Wallops Flight Facility, (Wallops Island, VA) (www.wff.nasa.gov/index.html). The agency generally launches up to 35 balloons a year. Payloads carry a variety of instrumentation to gather information on the atmosphere, the Sun, the near-Earth, and space environment and beyond. In addition, NASA is involved in a new project, the Ultra-Long Duration Balloon (ULDB) to develop new materials and design a standard gondola including power, telemetry/command, and an altitude control system. Flights are scheduled to launch in early 2001 and are planned to stay aloft for 100 days or more with scientific payloads of more than a ton.
Another scientific balloon site worth checking out is Boomerang (www.physics. ucsb.edu/~boomerang, which is short for Balloon Observations of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation and Geophysics. The data gathered creates images of the early universe.