A memorial service for adventurer Steve Fossett, a member of Washington University’s Board of Trustees and a 1968 MBA graduate of the university’s Olin Business School, will be held at 5 p.m. Thursday, May 1, in Graham Chapel on the Danforth Campus.
Fossett was declared legally dead by an Illinois judge in February, five months after his small plane vanished Sept. 3 while he was flying over the Nevada desert. He was 63.
The holder of official world records in five sports — balloons, airships, sailboats, gliders and jet airplanes — Fossett was perhaps best known as the first person to fly around the world alone, nonstop, in a balloon.
“Steve Fossett was an amazing individual,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “While he was considered one of the world’s most accomplished adventurers, his focus was not strictly on breaking records. In addition to having a distinguished business career, he had a genuine interest in not only challenging himself — pushing the limits — but also encouraging others to do the same to make the world a better place.
“Washington University was fortunate that he wanted to share his spirit of adventure with our community. From serving as mission control for his balloon attempts, to being the recipient of an endowed professorship, undergraduate fellowships, support for an exciting 3-D celestial imaging lab and his wise counsel as a board member, Washington University is a better place because of Steve Fossett. He will be deeply missed.”
Born in Jackson, Tenn., in 1944, Fossett earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University in 1966 and a master’s degree in business administration from Washington University in 1968.
A university trustee since 1995, Fossett’s devotion and generosity to his alma mater extended throughout the university.
In 1997, he and his wife, Peggy, established the Fossett Distinguished Professorship of Marketing in the Olin Business School. In 2001, Fossett funded an undergraduate research fellowship program that attracts top-notch students to the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences.
Fossett also provided major support to earth and planetary sciences for the Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration, announced in September 2006.
“Steve was a friend, fellow explorer and generous benefactor,” said Raymond E. Arvidson, Ph.D., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, who will speak at the memorial service. “He was particularly interested in enhancing the undergraduate research experience, in addition to following our laboratory’s efforts with the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. He will be greatly missed.”
One of the students who has benefited from his generosity is freshman Kirsten Siebach, a Fossett Fellow and a member of the university’s Pathfinder Program.
“Receipt of a Fossett Fellowship has greatly enhanced my opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate,” Siebach said. “For example, I will be involved in the Phoenix Mars Lander operations this summer at the University of Arizona in Tucson, focusing on use of the robotic arm to conduct soil and ice physical properties experiments.”
Setting world records
Always focused on achieving his best, Fossett set a total of 117 official world records.
In 2002, he became the first person to complete a solo round-the-world balloon flight after working toward the record for seven years. The flight, his sixth attempt at the record, launched from Northam in Western Australia on June 19, 2002, and returned to Queensland, Australia, July 4, 2002.
During his historic circumnavigation of the world, Fossett traveled 20,602 miles, reached speeds of up to 204 miles per hour and flew as high as 34,700 feet. WUSTL served as mission control for this flight as well as three others of his balloon flights, including his 1998 launch from the old Busch Stadium.
Fossett also was among history’s most successful speed sailors. In 2001, he shattered the Transatlantic sailing record, completing the trip in four days, 17 hours at an average speed unprecedented in the sport of sailing: 25.78 knots.
In 2004, he made history again by sailing around the world in 58 days and nine hours, breaking the previous record by nearly six days. Having set 23 official sailing world records, he was named Rolex Yachtsman of the Year in 2001.
His aviation feats also were far ranging. In 2005, he completed the first solo non-stop around-the-world airplane flight in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, a mission that kept him airborne in a single jet engine airplane for 67 hours and one minute.
In February 2006, he climbed back into the GlobalFlyer and set a new record for the longest distance flight in aviation history, traveling 26,389 miles from the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida, around the world then on to Bournemouth, England, in 76 hours, 42 minutes.
Other aviation achievements included the fastest flight ever in a non-supersonic airplane. He also set 11 world glider records with co-pilot Terry Delore, including the straight-line distance record of 2,193 kilometers and an altitude record of 50,671 feet during a flight over the Andes Mountains.
Long fascinated by endurance sports, he swam the English Channel, ran Alaska’s famed Iditarod Dogsled Race, drove the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race and finished the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.
Fossett’s spirit of adventure also was apparent in his business enterprises. He founded and managed Lakota Trading, Inc., a major exchange floor market-making firm. He was a member of the New York Stock Exchange for 26 years.
He received the university’s Olin Business School Distinguished Alumni Award in 1995 and an honorary doctor of science degree at the university’s Commencement ceremony in May 2006.
In his autobiography, “Chasing the Wind” (Virgin Books), Fossett talked directly about his extraordinary life in business and sport, his challenges and failures along the way, and his goals and motivations.
“I pursue world records for the sense of personal achievement. I never tire of the satisfaction of reaching another goal. I will always find fascinating new endeavors.”
He is survived by his wife, Peggy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: At the request of the Fossett family, cameras or recording equipment will not be allowed in Graham Chapel during the memorial service. Media interviews with some of the speakers will be granted following the service.