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They said it was a weather balloon...
This week has brought us a Chinese balloon floating over US airspace for apparently no reason, just an accident, blown off-course. After its lengthy jaunt across the entire country (and some political dithering) it was finally brought down by a missile in the Atlantic. Why a balloon from the Pacific would have accidentally made such a journey obviously raises a lot of questions.
I have no idea what the Chinese are up to, but weather balloons have a particular and odd cultural history. They were first used in the late 19th century (long after the first hot-air balloons), as a method of gathering atmospheric data.
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Hydrogen balloons carrying instruments up into the sky were able to give us information about air pressure, currents, temperatures. They are still used regularly today (although some agencies use drones as well). They carry a device to send back readings via radio. These days they can also be tracked via GPS to measure airspeed. Although in a sense an old technology, they are very much part of meteorology today. Thousands are released every day, all around the world. Most of us never see them, or think about them. We just dial up Accuweather and get the benefit.
But there are other high altitude balloons that are not checking the weather (during the Cold War they were used for surveillance and monitoring of fallout from nuclear tests).
Weather balloons entered the popular culture in a different way by mid-century however: as the official explanation for UFO sightings.
The authorities recovered the remains of a surveillance balloon from a farm near Roswell, NM, in 1947. One theory is that some in the Air Force were happier to let it be believed there was an alien craft than to admit that it was a balloon from their secret spy project. Whether you believe that is up to you (I’ve written about the long history of conspiracy theories before).
But since then, “weather balloon” has sounded like “cover-up” to any UFO believers. Nothing to see here, move along folks. And if you don’t shut up, some men in black will be by to shut you up. The theorists are already gearing up on the Chinese balloon, and what it really is and that’s what they want you to think.
My title comes from the lyrics of the song by Soul Coughing, “Unmarked Helicopters”, which was used in the X-Files TV show.
Unmarked helicopters, hovering
They said it was a weather balloon….
I know the truth.