Trial Balloons : L’Garde Plans ‘Space Art’ for Goodwill Games


Since the Cold War began to thaw, L’Garde Inc. has suffered cuts in its “Star Wars” defense work and has struggled to find non-defense applications for its space balloons and electronics equipment.

But the spirit of peace could bring new business to the defense contractor in a cooperative effort with the Soviet Union. Instead of space-based weaponry, the company says it would like to send “space art” into the heavens.

Mitchell Thomas, L’Garde’s president, said Tuesday that the company hopes to build a pair of giant inflatable balloons--painted in the colors of the American and Russian flags--and send them into orbit via a Russian rocket as part of a promotion for the Goodwill Games, the international sports event that promotes superpower cooperation. The games will be held in Seattle from July 20 to Aug. 5.


The two balloons, tied together by a 7 1/2-mile tether, would orbit about 400 to 500 miles above the earth and be visible from the ground as the brightest stars in the night sky, Thomas said.

Besides giving L’Garde international attention, the contract could garner $500,000 in revenue, Thomas said.

“Nobody has ever done this before,” said Thomas. “The defense of the country has been very important to us, but something like this that will help soothe East-West relations is very satisfying.”

Thomas and Pat Malone, L’Garde’s supervisor of engineering, traveled to Moscow in late April to coordinate the project with Soviet officials, who will provide a Kosmos booster rocket to send the balloons into orbit.

“It is very encouraging to work closely with the Soviets for a change,” Thomas said. “The spirit of cooperation is exciting.”

He said the company, which owes the bulk of its $5 million in annual revenue to defense contracts, will not release detailed information on the project, which is based on classified, 20-year-old satellite technology.

The project must still overcome several obstacles before it will fly. The Goodwill Games has not found a sponsor to fund the project; the Soviets have not decided how much to charge the Games for sending a rocket into orbit; and the State Department has not yet approved the venture.

“At the moment, it’s problematical” whether it will happen, said Dough Jewett, an organizer with the Goodwill Games. “This would have been an exciting thing to accomplish, but it’s not on the top of the list in terms of priorities. We’ve had a relatively short climate of cooperation and it is now the 11th hour.”

James Pridgeon, a Seattle artist, conceived the project three years ago in a contest to design a symbol for the Goodwill Games, which were first held four years ago in Moscow.

The Goodwill Games will involve athletes from 50 nations. The “space art” balloons would go into orbit about Aug. 1, Thomas said. The balloons would orbit the earth for two to six weeks and burn up upon re-entering the atmosphere.