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Spy Balloons Are a Growth Industry

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: EyePress News/Shutterstock

The basic story of the February UFO invasion — that the United States is suddenly shooting down a bunch of mysterious floating objects because it started scanning the skies for them just last week after a Chinese surveillance balloon took it by surprise — is most interesting for its suggestion that there may be many, many more “objects” hanging out in various layers of Earth’s atmosphere. (The government also revealed it was aware of at least a few surveillance balloons that had passed through American airspace during the Trump administration.) I think this is a fair assumption and one that doesn’t depend on the events of the past week to make sense — or on a suspiciously cute “oops!” from the Air Force about adjusting its radar settings.

The public is late to realize it, but weird, wispy balloons specialized for military, research, and [redacted] uses are very much in right now. From the government’s own “2022 Annual Report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” which covers accounts that originated mostly from U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots, of 366 UFO/UAP reports made since 2021, 163 were eventually assessed as “balloon or balloonlike entities.” Officials have recently called attention to efforts by China toward the balloon-led “militarization” of the stratosphere, but last year Politico reported on an American effort along the same lines, to which Chinese efforts can be read as a response:

For years, DoD has conducted tests using high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones to collect data, provide ground forces with communication and mitigate satellite problems. The Pentagon is quietly transitioning the balloon projects to the military services to collect data and transmit information to aircraft, POLITICO discovered in DoD budget justification documents.

The U.S. military has been experimenting with stratospheric balloons since the 1950s, and private firms and individuals have been floating them up for various purposes (mapping, telecommunications, selling Red Bull, making YouTube egg-drop videos, elementary-school science projects) for years.

At the rate things are going — roughly one obliterated UFO a day with official acknowledgment — it’s possible we’ll get a better explanation for what’s actually happening here soon enough. On Tuesday, the National Security Council de-escalated its UFO rhetoric a bit:

In the meantime, though, as is often the case with mysterious stories involving the American military and international relations, one way to get a sense of what could be going on, and why it might matter, is to see what American corporations are already up to.

Non-secret stratospheric balloons are a major growth market. Industry analysts are forecasting big things ahead for “airships, balloons, and pseudo-satellite platforms,” known collectively as “high-altitude platforms,” or HAPs, in the coming years. To pick just one firm, World View, a self-styled “global leader in stratospheric exploration and flight” that plans to go public with a SPAC this year, describes the promise of what it calls “Stratollites” in a promotional video you can watch yourself.

The basic pitch is compelling, whether you’re a company in need of some detailed imagery or a government that wants to get a closer look than a satellite can provide without immediately starting a world war. The balloons are cheap to make, launch (or rather, let float), and fly (er, float); they can tour around or hang out inconspicuously over a single location for days; they can carry all sorts of surveillance equipment; they even have sort-of-maybe-kinda plausible deniability built in since flying them requires a bit of guesswork and trust in whatever the wind decides to do.

In a world where a single private company can launch thousands of satellites in the space of a few years and Space View is just one of the firms claiming it will send tourists to the stratosphere in balloons by 2024, the floating of various governmental and private fleets of privacy-and-sovereignty-violating stratospheric balloons seems abundantly plausible — both as a partial explanation for why aviators keep encountering so many strange and unexpected things at high altitudes and as a continuing source of major international incidents.

Here in America, Spy Balloons Are a Growth Industry