Koh Murai looks like a guy who launches people and precious cargo into the heavens. It must be the steely-eyed stare, or the well-waxed handlebar moustache.

Throughout the 1990s, a host of daredevil transglobal balloonists relied on Launchmaster Murai to coax their temperamental lighter-than-airships into the sky. Once the Earth was circumnavigated two years ago, Murai relocated from Nevada to Oregon and accepted the next challenge: sending an unmanned balloon to Mars.

Shortly after dawn on a recent Friday morning, Murai met his crew and two scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Blimp Hangar B in Tillamook to flight-test a prototype of a solar-heated balloon designed to deliver a yet-to-be built spacecraft to the surface of the Red Planet.

While the scientists fretted over their Solar Montgolfière out on the tarmac, Murai and his launch crew unfurled the tow balloon, a 75-foot-long veil of translucent plastic film, on a tarp on the floor of the absurdly oversized hangar. After tethering it to a cradle on the hood of an SUV, they carefully filled only the top third of the envelope with helium (since the gas would expand and fill the rest of the balloon as it climbed higher and higher into the atmosphere) and then backed it out of the hangar.

With its bulbous head straining skyward and its whiplike uninflated tail undulating in the breeze, the tow balloon looked like a giant sperm hell-bent on fertilization as Murai and his crew attached the payload: a 25-foot-long parachute, the Mars balloon, and a 70-foot-long hog-line of plastic blue boxes and white cylinders housing a variety of scientific instruments. One of the scientists yanked a pin, releasing the tow balloon. The chase was on.

Murai jumped into his truck and headed over the Coast Range for the recovery, monitoring the balloon as it climbed to 115,000 feet, where conditions are most Marslike and the Earth is a blue-and-white crescent floating in a sea of black.

At the very edge of space, midway between Tillamook and McMinnville, the payload separated from the tow balloon. Stabilized by a parachute on its simulated entry into the Martian atmosphere, the open-bottomed balloon expanded with super-chilled air as it fell earthward, slowing as it absorbed the sun's heat. It floated over Salem as legislators sat down for lunch, then softly touched down in a place called Coon Hollow, near Sublimity. A few minutes later, Murai was at the front door of a farm house, explaining that an experimental Mars balloon had landed a ways out back. Just stay off my tractor road with that truck of yours, said the farmer. With that, Launchmaster Murai walked onto the farmer's land, stuffed two five-gallon trash bags with what looked like a jumble of Saran Wrap, shouldered the string of instruments, and called it a day.
A very good day.

Montgolfière: a type of hot air balloon named after the brothers who flew the world's first hot-air balloon more than two centuries ago.

For more information about NASA's Mars balloon program, see www.jpl.nasa.gov/adv_tech/balloons .

If you're interested in visiting Blimp Hangar B, the world's largest wooden structure, call the Tillamook Air Museum, 842-1130; www.tillamookair.com .