Balloon Wars: Part 16 of the Secret History of Silicon Valley

In the 1950’s the U.S. Military and the CIA enlisted balloons (some as tall as a 40-story building) as weapons systems targeting the Soviet Union. Throughout the decade they launched a series of Top Secret/codeword balloon projects and thousands of balloons, to gather intelligence about the Soviet Union. The individual stories of these programs are interesting but an unexpected consequence of their secrecy was that they created a mythology that outlasted the missions.

Why Balloons?
In the 1950’s balloons had attributes that airplanes couldn’t match. In the days before satellites they could stay aloft for a long time (days or even weeks,) they could reach altitudes where airplanes couldn’t fly (100,000 feet,) and they could go places that were too dangerous for manned aircraft (flying over the Soviet Union.)

The Search for Soviet Nuclear Weapons
Project MOGUL was an Air Force balloon program to detect Soviet nuclear tests by listening to sound waves traveling through the upper atmosphere. During World War II, scientists had discovered the existence of an ocean layer that conducted underwater sound for thousands of miles. They thought that a similar sound channel might exist in the upper atmosphere. If they could put microphones in the upper atmosphere, the U.S. thought they might be able to hear Soviet nuclear tests and even detect ballistic missiles launches heading toward their targets. Designed to test this theory, Project Mogul balloons carried microphones up to the sound channel to “listen” and radio transmitters to send the sound to the ground. At first, project MOGUL flights involved trains of small weather balloons up to 600 feet in length. Later MOGUL flights used the large polyethylene balloons developed for the Navy’s SKYHOOK.

Flying Sandwich Bags – SKYHOOK
SKYHOOK balloons, funded by the Office of Naval Research, were designed to stay at a fixed altitude (~100,000 feet) and carry a payload of thousands of pounds. They were huge, 400 feet high, made possible because the then new material called polyethylene.  These “flying sandwich bags” were built by a company that had experience using this material in packaging – General Mills (the same company that makes Cheerios.)

Sniffing for a Reactor – Nuclear Air Sampling – ASHCAN
In 1957 the Air Force started Project ASHCAN (using SKYHOOK class balloons at 100,0000 feet) to take high altitude air samples and search for nuclear particles and trace gases in fallout from tests in the Soviet Union. For the first time, U.S. intelligence could estimate the amount of plutonium being produced by Soviet weapons production reactors. These balloons were secretly launched from Brazil and the Panama Canal Zone, and from air force bases in the U.S.  Over time, U.S. intelligence also used reconnaissance planes like the U-2, RB-57’s, and C-130 aircraft to collect air samples.

Genetrix Launched from the U.S.S. Valley Forge

Ballooning Over the Soviet Union – GENETRIX
While the nuclear detection balloons did their spying while flying above the U.S. or allied countries, the next series of balloons flew over the Soviet Union.

In the 1950’s, while U.S. reconnaissance aircraft flew around the periphery of the Soviet Union, U.S. military planners still had virtually no information about what was going on in vast areas of the Soviet territory. While there were a few overflights of the Soviet interior in the early 1950’s these missions were extremely risky and couldn’t provide enough information to assess Soviet military strength. Spy satellites and the
U-2 spy planes were still far in the future so the U.S. military became big fans of reconnaissance balloons as a solution to this problem.

In 1950 the Air Force thought that high-altitude balloons might be used to perform photo and ELINT spyflights over the Soviet Union.  They placed aerial reconnaissance cameras on the balloons and ran a series of test programs (code names of GOPHER, MOBY DICK, GRANDSON and GRAYBACK) launching 640 balloons from New Mexico, Montana, the West Coast, Missouri and Georgia. With the tests completed, the program name changed to GENETRIX and was given the designation of Weapons System 119L.

In late 1955 President Eisenhower gave the ok to launch the GENETRIX balloons over the Soviet Union. Hundreds of these balloons took off from secret sites in Norway, Scotland, West Germany, and Turkey carrying a gondola with two reconnaissance cameras.

The United States launched 516 of the GENETRIX balloons but only 44 or so made it out of the Soviet Union.  The rest landed on Soviet farms dumping 600-pound cameras in hayfields. We did get coverage of about 8 percent of the Soviet Union, but politically it created a lot of tension as cameras were popping up on Khrushchev’s desk.  “Oh, another balloon Mr. Premier.”  The Soviets put on a public exhibition of the equipment.

Bigger and Better- MELTING POT
Never one to give up, the military suggested a bigger and better balloon program. Since the GENETRIX balloons flying at 55,000 feet were relatively easy for Soviet fighters to intercept, the new balloons would be built around the Navy SKYHOOK design and fly at 100,000 feet for up to a month. These balloons would carry a new reconnaissance camera, built by the Boston University Physical Research Lab. Three of these balloons were launched in July 1958 from an aircraft carrier off the east coast of Japan (in those months the jet stream at the altitude went west to east.) All three accidentally dropped their gondolas over Communist territory.  President Eisenhower cancelled all the balloon overflights.

Unexpected Consequences – UFO’s in the 1950’s
All these balloon flights had an unexpected consequence on a jittery and paranoid nation in the Cold War. Before sunrise and after sunset, while the Earth below was dark, high altitude balloons were still lit by sunlight, and their plastic skin glowed and appeared to change color with the change in sun angle. Some of the Project Mogul balloon flights were launched from Alamogordo Air Base in New Mexico in 1947, and a few crashed nearby – one near a town called Roswell. The start of the Mogul balloon flights coincided with the first reports of UFO’s. To someone on the ground, these balloons may have looked like UFOs.

Because each of these separate balloon programs were highly compartmentalized programs it’s doubtful that there was any one individual who realized that the sum of the programs were putting thousands of high altitude balloons in the air in the 1950’s. The MOGUL, MOBY DICK, ASHCAN and GENETRIX programs were the CIA/military’s most closely guarded secret projects. Balloon sightings were dismissed with cover story: they were just weather balloons. Even as one part of the military tried to investigate these sightings, the other kept them away from the true purpose of the balloon missions.The reason for the denials – 1) the Soviets could have masked their nuclear tests and filtered their reactor emissions if they knew what we were sampling and 2) GENETRIX balloon flights over the Soviet Union were a violation of international law.

The thousands of classified balloon flights (along with the first flight of the high altitude CIA U-2 reconnaissance plane in 1955) are a possible explanation of of UFO sightings in the 1950’s and the claim of military cover-ups.

8 Responses

  1. These are great stories! Any plans to cover the U-2 and SR-71?

    • Steve,

      As they’re pretty well covered in the popular literature I’m not sure I have much more to add – other than the Side Looking Radar, ELINT and ECM suites.

      steve

    • If you haven’t already, you should check out Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed by Ben R. Rich. Lot’s of good stuff in there.

  2. I like this blog. Advice for startups and history facts.

  3. Heh, this explains a lot about UFOs.

  4. Steve,
    I wonder if you know stories from the soviet part?
    A

  5. […] Forge apparently in the 1950s. See Steve Blank’s fascinating “Balloon Wars” post: http://steveblank.com/2010/01/28/balloon-wars/ Now consider the following image from investigation notes of an investigation done by David Buching […]

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